Can meditation really make us nicer people? Really?

Chinese flower

It appears so. Psychologists and neuroscientists have designed some interesting experiments that show we really do become nicer after practicing meditation.

Would you give up your chair to someone in pain?

One study published in August 2013 in Psychological Science[1], found that we are 5 times more likely to give up our chair to someone who is suffering following training in meditation. It compared the reactions of 2 groups of people where one group received 8 weeks of meditation training  (both mindfulness meditation and compassion meditation were randomly assigned to participants), and the other formed a waiting-list control group. After 8 weeks, participants were individually invited to a centre on the pretext of taking a written test. When they arrived, the waiting room was designed so that there were 3 chairs, of which 2 were taken by “fake” participants and one seat left for the “real” participant. When the real participant was seated for 1 minute, another “fake participant” entered – this time in crutches, and visibly in pain. The real test was to see if within 2 minutes of this person entering, the “real” participant would give up their seat to the person in pain with crutches.

As it turned out, about half of the people who had trained in meditation gave up their seat, but only 15% of the waitlist control group did the same. Measuring the odds, the authors say: “That 8 weeks of meditation resulted in such a large effect—increasing the odds of acting to relieve another person’s pain by more than 5 times”.

As encouraging as that sounds for arguments to meditate, what is baffling is how many people don’t actually give up their chair in this situation. The authors explain this as the “classic bystander” model: “The simple presence of the two confederates and their total disregard for the pain of the sufferer constitutes a classic bystander manipulation in which both diffusion of responsibility and norms suggesting an acceptance of nonintervention are heightened (cf. Darley & Latané, 1968).”  Great explanation, but a sad reflection of our times.


Meditation makes our brains feel more empathy with another’s suffering

In an earlier study from May 2013 also published in Psychological Science, a team of scientists including Dr Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin’s Centre of Investigating Healthy Minds, studied whether training people in compassion leads to more altruistic, i.e. self-less behaviour[2]. Compassion training is designed based on the Buddhist compassion meditation, where the individual is guided through cultivating feelings of compassion for different targets – a loved one, themselves, a stranger, and a difficult person. This study was designed with 3 groups – one who received 2 weeks of compassion training via audio guides, an active control group receiving a “reappraisal” training where the learn to re-interpret distressing events to reduce personal suffering, and a validation group with no training.

All 3 groups underwent fMRI (neuroimaging) scans before and after the 2 weeks, to measure neural activity. After the 2 weeks, the participants were asked to take part in an online game which was presented as a unique study including live but anonymous players. In this game, there was a dictator who distributed an unfair amount of money ($1 out of $10) to a victim who had no money. The participant could choose to give some of their own endowment ($5) to persuade the dictator to give more money to the victim – they would be given in cash the remainder of their endowment.

Results showed that the group who trained in compassion meditation game spent more of their own money to redistribute funds to the victim compared to both the other 2 groups.

From the neuroimaging scans, the study also showed the that the change in behaviour can be linked to changes in neural connections in the brain: “The pattern of neural changes in compassion training suggests that increased altruistic behavior is achieved by enhancing neural mechanisms that support the understanding of others’ states, greater fronto-parietal executive control, and up-regulation of positive emotion systems.”

In short, even short term compassion training leads to more self-less behaviour, and this behaviour is linked to changes in the brain such that the neural connections associated with understanding other people’s suffering are more engaged.


A case for compassion

Compassion is the emotional response we feel when faced with another’s suffering. The  word originates from Latin roots “com”(with) and “pati”(suffer), so “to suffer with”. It has had its part to play in successful societies “..and may have evolved in humans to foster altruistic acts that increase survival of kin as well as nonkin (Darwin, 1871/2004; Goetz et al., 2010; Sober et al., 1999).”

For a fantastic summary of what constitutes compassion, and it benefits for those who experience it according to the latest research, read this article. It is written by Emma Seppala, Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University.

Matthieu Ricard, the French molecular geneticist who has become one of the most famous Buddhist monks in the West, makes his case for compassion in this video below:



[1] Condon, P. et al 2013, Meditation increases emotional responses to suffering, Psychological Science 2013 24: 2125

[2] H. Y. Weng, A. S. Fox, A. J. Shackman, D. E. Stodola, J. Z. K. Caldwell, M. C. Olson, G. M. Rogers, R. J. Davidson.Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI:10.1177/0956797612469537


2 Comments on “Can meditation really make us nicer people? Really?

  1. Only one in six people offered their seat to someone on crutches? And only half of the meditation group did it? Wow, what were those people’s parents doing when they brought them up…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *