Does adversity make people more or less sympathetic to others?

In both studies, the results were the same. Those who had faced increasingly severe adversities in life — loss of a loved one at an early age, threats of violence or the consequences of a natural disaster — were more likely to empathize with others in distress, and, as a result, feel more compassion for them. And of utmost importance, the more compassion they felt, the more money they donated (in the first study) or the more time they devoted to helping the other complete his work (in the second).

Now, if experiencing any type of hardship can make a person more compassionate, you might assume that the pinnacle of compassion would be reached when someone has experienced the exact trial or misfortune that another person is facing. Interestingly, this turns out to be dead wrong.

In an article recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Kellogg School of Management professor Loran Nordgren and colleagues found that the human mind has a bit of a perverse glitch when it comes to remembering its own past hardships: It regularly makes them appear to be less distressing than they actually were.

As a result of this glitch, reflecting on your own past experience with a specific misfortune will very likely cause you to underappreciate just how trying that exact challenge can be for someone else (or was, in fact, for you at the time). You overcame it, you think; so should he. The result? You lack compassion.