Experimental evidence that meditation promotes acts of kindness

Northeastern University College of Science: Scientists have mostly focused on the benefits of meditation for the brain and the body, but a recent study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, takes a look at what impacts meditation has on interpersonal harmony and compassion.

Several religious traditions have suggested that mediation does just that, but there has been no scientific proof — until now.

In this study, a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University examined the effects meditation would have on compassion and virtuous behavior, and the results were fascinating.

This study — funded by the Mind and Life Institute — invited participants to complete eight-week trainings in two types of meditation. After the sessions, they were put to the test.

Sitting in a staged waiting room with three chairs were two actors. With one empty chair left, the participant sat down and waited to be called. Another actor using crutches and appearing to be in great physical pain, would then enter the room. As she did, the actors in the chair would ignore her by fiddling with their phones or opening a book.

The question DeSteno and Paul Condon — a graduate student in DeSteno’s lab who led the study — and their team wanted to answer was whether the subjects who took part in the meditation classes would be more likely to come to the aid of the person in pain, even in the face of everyone else ignoring her. “We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological wellbeing,” said Condon. “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.”

Among the non-meditating participants, only about 15 percent of people acted to help. But among the participants who were in the meditation sessions “we were able to boost that up to 50 percent,” said DeSteno. This result was true for both meditation groups thereby showing the effect to be consistent across different forms of meditation. “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so,” DeSteno said, “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates as ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”

These results appear to prove what the Buddhist theologians have long believed — that meditation is supposed to lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific proof for meditation techniques to alter the calculus of the moral mind.

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4 thoughts on “Experimental evidence that meditation promotes acts of kindness

  1. Paul Woodward

    “Karim” — if you want to draw some sectarian conclusions from a study on the effects of meditation, that’s your problem.

    As for the study itself, since reasonable skepticism might raise the question as to whether the participants’ behavior was the result of religious indoctrination rather than the cultivation of mindfulness (which doesn’t involve any belief system) this was addressed in the study’s design:

    DeSteno’s team recruited more than three dozen indi­vid­uals inter­ested in pur­suing med­i­ta­tion training. Half of them were assigned to the wait list while the other half par­tic­i­pated in an eight-​​week work­shop with an ordained Bud­dhist lama. The med­i­ta­tion group was fur­ther split into two: All were taught tech­niques to calm and focus the mind, but only half engaged in direct dis­cus­sions of com­pas­sion and suffering.

    At the end of the eight-​​week ses­sion, par­tic­i­pants were asked to come in for cog­ni­tive testing in the lab, but the real study took place in the waiting room just out­side. Here is the setup: When the test sub­ject arrives, he finds three seats, two of them occu­pied. He sits in the open seat. “Then down the hall comes a person in crutches and a big foot boot who is looking in incred­ible pain,” said DeSteno.

    The other two people in the room, who are hired actors for the study, pull out their cell phones and delib­er­ately avoid eye con­tact with the suf­fering invalid (who is also an actor). They do not offer their seat. This, said DeSteno, is called a bystander effect. “If there are other people around who aren’t helping out, then others won’t either,” he explained, noting a social pres­sure not to help.

    The study found that about 15 per­cent of the nonmeditators–the wait­listed group–got up and offered their seat to the suf­ferer com­pared to about 50 per­cent of those in both med­i­ta­tion groups–those who engaged in dis­cus­sions about com­pas­sion and those who only par­tic­i­pated in med­i­ta­tion training. The results sug­gest that it was the med­i­ta­tion itself—not the discussions—that accounted for the increase.

    As for the Buddhists attacking Muslims in Myanmar, “Buddhist” is just as susceptible as any other religious identity to be turned into a weapon of self-righteousness and sectarianism. And in this instance an indication of how opportunistic sectarianism can become is that some of the photos of these massacres of Muslims are being circulated by Islamophobic Christians, claiming that the victims are Christians in Africa and the perpetrators are Muslims! The insanity never stops.

  2. BillVZ

    Karim you left out the recent violence caused by monks in a Buddhist nation- Sri Lanka. A true reflection on the history of the crusades is in order. The insanity began centuries ago.

    “We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behavior.” Paul, if so how?
    That insight about the effects of meditation has been explained by several Buddhist traditions for ever so long. Albert Einstein also gave an insightful answer when he alludes to the mind delusion of our consciousness –a prison caused by our ego- the idea of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Meditation and the study of self through it gives ground to free ourselves from this prison and allows the widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” It has been said” To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

  3. Paul Woodward

    Bill — without disputing the Buddhist formulation on the effects of insight into the nature of self — or to put it another way, insight into the nature of change — what this study reveals (as I interpret it) are the effects of cultivating powers of observation. Meditation is just one way in which people can learn to become more observant — but there are plenty of others. It would be interesting, for instance, to conduct a similar study in which along with the meditators there was another group who spent 8 weeks studying still-life drawing and see whether this group would have been equally responsive to what was going on around them.

    The actual study hasn’t been published yet (and even when it is, it will be stuck behind an academic journal firewall!) but what I would be looking for is greater detail that might reveal why people were becoming more responsive to the needs of others. Is this all about increased compassion, or is there an equally important component: greater attentiveness to ones environment.

    In the age of smart phones and the myriad other distractions that clutter everyone’s lives, we live in a culture that cultivates lack of awareness of where we are. More than ever, our attention is drawn elsewhere.

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