An empirical examination of the factor structure of compassion.
Gu J., Cavanagh K., Baer R., Strauss C.
Compassion has long been regarded as a core part of our humanity by contemplative traditions, and in recent years, it has received growing research interest. Following a recent review of existing conceptualisations, compassion has been defined as consisting of the following five elements: 1) recognising suffering, 2) understanding the universality of suffering in human experience, 3) feeling moved by the person suffering and emotionally connecting with their distress, 4) tolerating uncomfortable feelings aroused (e.g., fear, distress) so that we remain open to and accepting of the person suffering, and 5) acting or being motivated to act to alleviate suffering. As a prerequisite to developing a high quality compassion measure and furthering research in this field, the current study empirically investigated the factor structure of the five-element definition using a combination of existing and newly generated self-report items. This study consisted of three stages: a systematic consultation with experts to review items from existing self-report measures of compassion and generate additional items (Stage 1), exploratory factor analysis of items gathered from Stage 1 to identify the underlying structure of compassion (Stage 2), and confirmatory factor analysis to validate the identified factor structure (Stage 3). Findings showed preliminary empirical support for a five-factor structure of compassion consistent with the five-element definition. However, findings indicated that the 'tolerating' factor may be problematic and not a core aspect of compassion. This possibility requires further empirical testing. Limitations with items from included measures lead us to recommend against using these items collectively to assess compassion. Instead, we call for the development of a new self-report measure of compassion, using the five-element definition to guide item generation. We recommend including newly generated 'tolerating' items in the initial item pool, to determine whether or not factor-level issues are resolved once item-level issues are addressed.