Traditional Buddhists meditate in the pursuit of enlightenment. Non-religious practitioners may try it out in order to find a bit of calm or perhaps to treat anxiety or depression. But whatever their motivation, people who meditate, new research shows, act nicer than those who don’t.
Researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University recruited around three dozen participants interested in meditation. Half of the group was put on a wait list, while the other half was split into two groups. These two groups participated in meditation sessions that promote calm and focus in the mind. Only one group, though, engaged in active discussion about Buddhist compassion and suffering.
At the end of eight-week sessions, participants returned to the lab for what they were told would be cognitive testing. The true test, however, was in the lab’s waiting room. The researchers placed three seats in the room, two of which were occupied by actors. When the study participant entered the room, he took the remaining seat. Then, another actor, this one on crutches and with a look of horrendous pain on his face, entered the waiting room.
The two seated actors avoided eye contact with the suffering man on crutches, burying their faces in their cell phones. They didn’t offer their seat, promoting what scientists call the “bystander effect,” in which people copy the behaviors of others, even if it means not helping someone.
The researchers were interested to see how their participants would react. It turned out that only 15 percent of the participants put on the study’s wait list—those who had not meditated at all—offered their seat to the invalid stranger. But around 50 percent of those who meditated did give up their seat. There was no difference between meditators who only meditated and those who actually discussed the concept of compassion, suggesting that the meditation itself was the crucial factor in increasing compassion.
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