Social psychologist David DeStefano and his colleagues had some important questions:

Empirically speaking, does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? 

So, like good scientists, they conducted a couple experiments. Here’s what they found:

What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.

What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.

Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way.

Something to ponder for all your moralists out there.