When humans witness others in need, we empathize with them and often help them. It is well documented that empathy occurs automatically, but when those in need are not members of a social ingroup, empathy and helping are often lower. One major social division in America and in other countries is based on race. Although most condemn racial discrimination, empathy and helping are often lower, however unintentionally, in interracial interactions. In light of this so-called empathy gap, I asked whether mindfulness training – cultivating present-centered, receptive attention to one’s experiences – increases empathy and helping toward racial outgroup members. Seventy-nine self-identifying White women were randomized to either a brief (4-day) mindfulness training (MT) or a structurally equivalent sham mindfulness training (ST). Electroencephalographic measures of “emotion matching,” a form of empathy that is undermined in interracial interactions, toward video stimuli of ingroup and outgroup members (compared to self) expressing sadness was assessed before and after the interventions via prefrontal alpha frequency oscillations. Pre- and post-intervention spontaneous helping behavior toward a Black individual experiencing discomfort in a staged scenario and 14-day daily helping frequency toward racial ingroup and outgroup members was assessed during daily living. Opposite of what was hypothesized, MT reduced post-intervention “emotion matching,” relative to ST during the video observation task. MT, however, increased empathic concern felt for outgroup members expressing sadness in the video stimuli. MT increased post-intervention scenario-based helping, but did not change post-intervention daily helping frequency toward outgroup members. Multi-method convergent evidence was obtained, as trait mindfulness predicted higher pre-intervention scenario-based and daily helping behavior toward outgroup members. Together these data suggest that mindfulness training can enhance empathy and helping in interracial contexts, though mechanisms of these effects remain elusive.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Daniel Berry is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching assistant in the experimental psychology program (social division) at Virginia Commonwealth University. Implicit to theories of helping behavior, but often overlooked, … MORE