The Social Benefits of Meditation

Recently, there was an interesting story in the New York Times on meditation and its effects on people’s behavior.  As a meditator, I can attest to its stress reduction and general mood improvement properties.  But the story talks about its effects on compassion toward others.

We recruited 39 people from theBoston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them topractice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing other signoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect —reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

What the New York Times story did not discuss was even more striking (link no longer available). The meditation group had been divided into two, with one group learning compassionate meditation (which focuses on fostering good feelings towards others) and the other group learning ordinary meditation.  Both of the meditation groups had similar effects toward the person in crutches!

The study, of course, had small numbers and so needs to be weighted accordingly.  But I don’t have all that much difficulty believing the findings.  While the Times story offers other explanations, it seems to me that even noncompassionate meditation does a range of things – such as reducing stress, improving mood, increasing attention – that would make it more likely that the person would do the nice thing.