Kindness and compassion are prosocial constructs aimed at benefiting others, with the former focused on happiness and the latter on suffering. Despite these distinctly different motivations, kindness and compassion are often used interchangeably. If compassion and kindness are different processes, they should respond differently to the same facilitators and inhibitors, with a key moderator being likeability.
We used a cross-sectional survey design to examine whether a target that differed in terms of likeability (liked versus disliked) influenced willingness to engage in kind acts compared to compassionate acts, and the emotional patterns experienced. We recruited 150 participants (83 men, 66 women, 1 other; Mage = 27.85, SD = 10.21) using an online survey platform.
Participants reported less willingness to engage in acts of kindness compared to acts of compassion regardless of target likeability. However, this reduction in willingness was markedly greater for disliked targets. Compassionate acts towards liked targets were associated with significantly higher levels of negative emotions (e.g., irritation, sadness, anger, anxiety, and disgust) when compared to kind acts. Conversely, compassionate acts towards disliked targets elicited less feelings of irritation and anger compared to kind acts.
These findings indicate that kindness and compassion result from separable motivational systems, differing in both the emotions elicited and the willingness to act. Reluctance in helping disliked others is reduced when the action is aimed at reducing suffering.