Courage and Compassion with Geshe Thupten Jinpa

by Dr. Liliana Lengua and Dr. Jessica Sommerville, May 15, 2015

On Wednesday May 13th the UW and Seattle community were fortunate to participate in a visit and lecture by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a former Buddhist monk, Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Cambridge University, and principal English translator for the Dalai Lama. Jinpa was talking about his new book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.

In his lecture, he drew many insightful connections between research on kindness, compassion, altruism, and the transformation of our personal and our communities’ well-being. He pointed out the growing evidence for the presence of a natural impulse or motivation humans have for kindness, fairness and compassion, and that survival of the fittest doesn't fully explain these motivations. Further, research on infants shows that sharing, fairness, helping and compassion don’t necessarily require socialization or acculturation for them to be present. Nonetheless, there is also growing evidence of the role parents, caregivers and educators can play in cultivating these qualities in children.

The research of Jessica Sommerville, Ph.D., UW psychology associate professor and assistant director of the social, emotional and cognitive competence core at the UW Center for Child and Family Well-being is expanding our understanding of the development of prosociality, such as sharing and fairness, and the role that parents can play in supporting their development.

The origins of a sense of fairness

Dr. Sommerville’s work investigates the origins of social cognition and social behavior in infants and young children. In particular, she is recently examining how and when infants develop a sense of fairness, and how and when of infants being to engage in prosocial behavior, such as sharing and helping. In these studies, her research team has found that infants possess a basic sense of fairness starting in the second year of life:  infants notice when individuals act unfairly and prefer to interact with fair people over unfair people. Her work has also revealed that the onset of infants' awareness and concerns about fairness coincide with the onset of sharing behavior, and that infants who are more attuned to fairness concerns in the second year of life are also those who are more generous in sharing toys. These findings suggest that sharing interactions may be one means through which fairness norms are transmitted, and provide a potential route through which infants and children's fairness concerns could be enhanced.


The impact of parental mindfulness-based interventions on parental empathy and infants' prosociality

Another key finding from Dr. Sommerville’s work is that parental empathy is correlated with both infants' fairness concerns and prosocial tendencies. Evidence suggests that mindfulness based interventions result in increases in empathy in adults. Given Dr. Sommerville’s findings of a tight link between parental empathy and infants' fairness concerns and prosociality,  her team recently conducted a study in which parents of infants participated in a mindfulness intervention. Infants and their parents visited her lab when their infants were 9 and 12 months of age; parents took part in a mindfulness intervention either between the two visits (mindfulness-based intervention group; MBI) or following their second visit (waiting list control group; WLC). During the lab visit parents completed mindfulness and empathy measures; infants took part in tasks designed to tap their sharing and fairness concerns. Their results, which will be reported in a forthcoming paper, revealed that parents in the MBI group, but not the WLC group increased in mindfulness and empathy from visit 1 to visit 2. Comparatively, infants of parents in the MBI group produced more persistent sharing behavior than infants in the WLC group, and within the MBI group, the more parents reported practicing mindfulness at home the more their infants demonstrated sharing behavior. These results suggests that mindfulness based interventions may be effective in not only increasing parental empathy but also in facilitating infants' prosociality.

For more information about Geshe Thupten Jinpa's book, please visit