Love, Compassion, and Care: Virtue Science and Exemplarity in Real Life


Warren S. Brown, Phd, Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary
Steven R. Quartz,
PhD, Professor of Philosophy, California Institute of Technology [link]
Kevin S. Reimer,
PhD, Professor of Psychology, Azusa Pacific University
Michael L. Spezio,
PhD, Caltech Visiting Researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology, Scripps College
Mark Graves. Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Project Description

The Travis Research Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology is pleased to have received a $1.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund this two-year project. This research is a continuation of research done through a previous grant from the Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series (STARS) grant competition hosted by the Center for Theology and Natural Science at Berkeley.

The purpose of this project is to understand the kind of love manifest in compassion and care by caregivers in L’Arche homes for the developmentally disabled. Our primary questions focus on the nature of love, compassion, and care within such exemplars of these virtues. Our study includes approximately 50 members of the L’Arche community. These caregivers demonstrate compassion, care, and love over a long period of time and at significant personal cost. Researchers will test the hypothesis that these virtues are based primarily in one’s habitual orientation to situations and persons, and are less influenced by calculations of likely benefits or obedience to moral rules.

The following three general domains of data will be collected:

  1. Eleven questionnaire measures will be taken online. These questionnaires deal with values, relational experiences, spiritual experiences, altruism, forgiveness, compassion, and in-group/out-group judgments.
  2. We will conduct a structured interview involving open-ended self-identity questions (taped and later transcribed for semantic analyses).
  3. We will use established game-type computerized behavioral paradigms to better understand how L’Arche exemplars move from decision to action. We will also have participants view images of faces and scenes. During these games and images, we will record multichannel electroencephalography, autonomic responses, and eye-fixations to better understand the nature of compassionate decisions and actions.

Additional related research supported by this grant will be done at Caltech involving studies of exemplars that emerge from laboratory behavior tasks. The project will use sophisticated methodologies, including computer methods that analyze the semantics of interview responses, behavior in economic games that reveal tendencies to be generous and caring at personal cost, and observations of brain functioning using fMRI and EEG imaging.


M Graves, WS Brown, K Reimer, A Beckum, S Smith, R Nair, ML Spezio. “Religion, Emotion & Belief in Self-Identity Narratives of L’Arche Caring Exemplars”American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. Atlanta, GA. November 2015.

R Nair, M Graves, KS Reimer, WS Brown, SR Quartz, GR Peterson, D Schümann, J Gläscher, ML Spezio. “A Self for Others: Joint Self-Other Representation of Value During Morally Relevant Action.” EuroAsianPacific Joint Conference on Cognitive Science. Torino, Italy. September 2015.

M Graves, KS Reimer, A Beckum, S Smith, R Nair, ML Spezio, WS Brown, SR Quartz. “Economic Behavioral and Semantic Analysis of Generosity and Fairness in L’Arche Caregivers.” Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Pasadena, CA. July 2015.

M Graves, K Reimer, M Spezio, A Beckum, R Nair, and WS Brown. “Community of the Downwardly Mobile: Scientific Study of Kenotic Habitus in L'Arche” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA. November 2014.

M Spezio, B Field, K Reimer, M Graves, R Nair and A Dreitcer. “Heartfulness as Mindfulness: Imitatio of Affectivity and Perspective in Christian Contemplative Practice” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA. November 2014.

M Graves, R Nair, L Zhu, ML Spezio, KS Reimer, WS Brown, SR Quartz. “Economic Behaviors of Compassionate Caregivers.” Poster presented at The Science of Compassion 2014 Conference, San Francisco, CA. November 2014.

WS Brown, M Spezio, M Graves, R Nair & A Beckum. “Economic Game Behavior of Exemplars of Compassion.” 40th Annual Conference of the Association for Moral Education, Pasadena, CA, November, 2014.

WS Brown, M Spezio, M Graves, R Nair, A Beckum, S Quartz and K Reimer. “Economic Game Behavior of Exemplars of Compassion.” American Psychological Association Division 36 Mid-Year Conference, La Mirada, CA. April 2014.


L’Arche exemplars showed heterogeneity in their behavioral strategies relative to generosity, honesty, and equity. When faced with an economic decision where one is forced to be generous or selfish, long-term L'Arche Assistants often make the more efficient choice, choosing the option for most benefit regardless of whether it benefits them selves or an anonymous stranger.

Given a threat of loss, L'Arche Assistants demonstrated greater action for others than control groups. Cognitive models of L'Arche game behaviors revealed a joint representation of values for self and others, while still differentiating between the two. That is, their actions reveal a “self for others”: a representation of value for self that is tied to value for others without losing the distinction between the two.

Analysis of their responses to the Life Narrative Interview found that L'Arche Assistants used affect and caring language significantly less frequently than others, which indicates their exemplary compassionate actions do not appear to depend upon an overt sentimentality. Although the L'Arche Assistants studied use more religious language than control groups, within L'Arche the religious language usage correlates negatively with self-reported frequency of attending religious services, which suggests that religion (and spirituality) plays a role within L'Arche separate from involvement in other religious institutions.

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