Is your compassion only “ribbon deep”? Do you worry about the possibility that your compassionate actions are insincere? Or do you just want to explore the possibility of being a genuinely compassionate person? Then this is the place for you. You can start with the background essay or skip to the Compassion Superficiality Quiz in the last section.


As I have a questionable habit of buying every new book I find on compassion, I downloaded from Amazon a 20004 book titled Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Really Is Cruel to be Kind. Fortunately, it is a short book of only 79 pages, a fourth of which is footnotes, because it was a most depressing read.

Written by Patrick West, a prolific freelance author in the UK, the book ostentatiously critiques what he calls the “emerging culture of ostentatious caring”. If you are not familiar with contemporary British culture and politics, you may find the book obtuse as well as excessively negative. However, if you happen to sympathize with the conservative wing of Britain’s conservative party, then you may well enjoy taking a few hours to read the little book.

The essence of the book is summed up in the last sentence: “…when it comes to impersonal caring, society is divided into two camps: the romantic but wrong and the revolting but right.” Dr. West looks at the compassion around him and automatically assumes it is insincere, if not hypocritical, and hence “wrong.”

In 13 short chapters, he tells tales of celebrities and protestors who promoted charitable causes with supposedly selfish or hypocritical motives. Other stories tell of governmental aid that fattened corrupt officials or corrupted welfare recipients. West’s lenses allow for seeing only black or white, no shades of gray, no nuanced or complex combinations of motives.

In addition to his political agenda, West seeks to point out how superficial contemporary compassion can be. He argues that many choose to donate a little money for the homeless rather than talk to them or volunteer to help the homeless. Another legitimate point he makes is that people may assume that by signing a petition on the Internet, they have fulfilled their duty to help the poor or hungry.

Nonetheless, reading such tales can do you a great favor, if willing to search your soul for insincerities in your compassionate inclinations. Reading how the social climate of charity balls undermines much of the potential for true charity gave me a new appreciation for those who are cynical about the promotion of compassion.

It also lead me to design a little compassion sincerity quiz. Here it is:

The Compassion Superficiality Quiz

Instructions: Reply to each question with a Y/N (yes or no) answer. If you can’t decide, leave it blank.

  1. Are you more likely to give to charity when someone you respect is watching you? Y / N
  1. Someone who repeatedly bullied you just lost a loved one. Do you feel glad or both glad and sad? Y / N
  1. I have been known to do something hurtful to a friend, even though I have overtly been very nice to him or her. Y / N
  1. If my favorite celebrity would be hospitalized, I would be more likely to send flowers than if my best friend were to be put into a hospital. Y / N
  1. I have put an empathy ribbon on my window or car so that others will know how caring I am? Y / N
  1. I think it is more important to feel good than to be good. Y / N
  1. If I were very wealthy, I would go to charity balls so that people would know I am altruistic. Y / N
  1. In this age of media when every day we can see tragedy on our screens, it is more important to let others know you are empathetic person than to feel empathy every time one sees human calamity. Y / N
  1. When someone like Princess Diana dies, it is easier to cry in public because so many others are doing it. Y / N
  1. Sometimes a lynch mob can be compassionate because it deters others from doing harm. Y / N
  1. Locking up convicted pedophiles is always good because it protects our children. Y / N
  1. Giving money to beggars is justified because it makes me feel good even though it may be wasted on alcohol or drugs. Y / N

To score the quiz, divide the total number of Yes answers by the total items answered. Higher percentages suggest greater compassion superficiality.