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Warren BrownWhat is the nature of individuals who dedicate themselves to long-term care for persons with disabilities? For the last three years this question has been under study at the Travis Research Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology.

The research was supported by a $1.3 million grant received from the John Templeton Foundation in 2013 to fund this project, titled “Love, Compassion, and Care: Virtue Science and Exemplarity in Real Life and in the Laboratory.” The project was conducted in partnership with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The principal investigators on this project are Warren S. Brown (professor of psychology, Fuller), Steven Quartz (professor of philosophy, Caltech), Michael Spezio (associate professor of psychology, Scripps College) and Kevin Reimer (director of undergraduate programs, School of Education, University of California, Irvine).

Larche CommunityThe project enjoyed unprecedented access to caregiver assistants in L’Arche communities for the developmentally disabled. Founded by renowned humanitarian Jean Vanier, L’Arche is an ecumenical federation of homes where the disabled are considered teachers of compassion, love, and virtue. L’Arche caregivers, widely considered humanitarian exemplars, point to the disabled as their compassionate tutors and source of inspiration. This inversion makes L’Arche a particularly compelling context for research on real-world virtue.

The grant was given for research that attempts to discover the kinds of minds, brains, and communities that support the sort of excellence in compassionate work evident in L’Arche. In order to learn about such care and compassion, one must work with exceptional communities—ones exhibiting long-term dedication to a vision of the moral life. This research involved an extensive self-identity interview, questionnaires, tasks involving decisions that reflect generosity and compassion, characteristics of eye-gaze to emotionally salient pictures, and patterns of brain activity.

The first scientific manuscript from the project, entitled “Semantic Goal Representation in Humanitarian Exemplars,” was recently submitted to a scientific journal. This particular work considers mental organization of interpersonal and self-improvement goals in L’Arche caregiver assistants relative to a matched comparison group of everyday individuals. Additional manuscripts are under development that consider other aspects of virtue and compassion in L’Arche using linguistic analyses, behavior responses in economic tasks, and electroencephalography.

Dr. Brown stated, “L’Arche caregiver assistants involve themselves in long-term compassion and care that all would agree is exemplary. The opportunity to study these individuals has afforded a significant opportunity to advance our understanding of these virtues. While data analyses are still ongoing, it appears that these individuals, while fairly common in most aspects, nevertheless tend to firmly integrate community and personal goals, to be motivated by affiliation, and to include grace in their self-assessments.”

For more information about this project, please contact Warren Brown at [email protected].