Most of us like to think that we’re compassionate people – that, given the opportunity, we’d recognize another’s pain and be moved to help.  But in the midst of our daily lives, how compassionate are we, really?  And is this something we can change about ourselves?

These questions were at the heart of a recent study led by Paul Condon, a graduate student studying social psychology with Dr. David DeSteno at Northeastern University. The experiment offered participants eight weeks of meditation instruction. Meeting for two hours each week, half of the participants were taught techniques to foster mindfulness, and the other half were trained in compassion. A comparison group of people who were also interested in learning meditation received their training after the study was complete.

After eight weeks of instruction, participants took various cognitive tests, believing that the experiment was measuring the effect of meditation on things like attention and memory.  However, the real goal was to understand changes in compassionate helping behavior.  This is where the experiment got elegantly clever.

The set-up went as follows. When a participant arrived for their cognitive testing at the end of the study, he or she entered a waiting room to find three chairs, two of which were occupied. Unbeknownst to the participant, the two other people in the waiting room were “confederates” – colleagues who were part of the study, but posing as bystanders. Naturally, the participant took the third seat and waited. After a minute, a third confederate, a woman, appeared around the corner with crutches and a walking boot. She winced in pain as she walked, stopped at the chairs and looked at her cell phone, then audibly sighed in discomfort and leaned back against a wall.  The two other confederates continued to wait, seated. This scene was allowed to play out for two more minutes.

The real test was, would the participant feel moved to respond compassionately, and give up his/her chair to the woman on crutches? Condon and his colleagues found there was a clear difference in behavior: those who had undergone meditation training (either in compassion or mindfulness) were five times more likely to give up their seat to the woman on crutches than those who had not practiced meditation. That’s a huge effect.

A small gesture? Maybe so. But some argue that these kinds of behavioral measures might be more meaningful than those derived from an EEG or an MRI machine – they tap into how we respond to our fellow humans.

This result is even more striking considering that the odds were stacked against the participant. “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,” said DeSteno. “The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates a ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping.” Perhaps you’ve experienced this effect yourself, feeling less inclined to help someone in need if you are on a street full of other people who are pretending the situation doesn’t exist. That these participants were so willing to help, even in the face of this implicit pressure to remain seated, suggests a powerful effect of meditation on social behavior.

Condon reflects, “We knew that meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological well-being, but now we have evidence that meditation actually increases compassionate behavior.” Those who are familiar with meditation know that its sometimes easy to feel compassion when sitting peacefully (and alone) on the cushion, but its in our everyday lives and interactions with others where the rubber meets the road.

We at Mind & Life are thrilled to see this kind of research being done on the real-world effects of contemplative practice.  Condon’s study was funded by a Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Research Grant, and will be published soon in the journal Psychological Science. Co-author Gaelle Desbordes of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University is also a past Varela Grant recipient.

Condon was recently granted a Mind & Life 1440 Grant to continue this work, which together with the study described above will make up his doctoral dissertation. Considering the role of the Mind & Life Institute in his career development, he remarks, “Mind & Life has been a great resource for me. The community provides me with a strong scientific foundation to study meditation, and an opportunity to interact with experts in neuroscience and contemplative scholarship. Funding from Mind & Life has allowed me to conduct interesting research on the social effects of meditation that I would not have been able to conduct otherwise. Overall, I probably would not have pursued meditation as a research topic without the support of the Mind & Life community and these grants.”

As with any study, this experiment has limitations, and follow-up work needs to be done.  One potential caveat is that the comparison group was not exposed to the social interactions and the presence of an engaging teacher that was experienced by the meditation group on a weekly basis. Its possible that the observed increase in helping behavior was not due specifically to meditation, but to these other social influences.  Measures indicate that both the meditation and control groups had similar levels of social interaction in their lives during the course of the study, making this possibility unlikely, but future research will need to rule it out conclusively.

We look forward to the results of Paul’s next study, which will extend his work to investigate the effects of meditation on behavioral and physiological responses to anger in real-world settings.  Hopefully, studies like this will help us understand how the benefits of meditation transfer “off the cushion,” to alleviate suffering in everyday life.

WENDY HASENKAMP, PhD, serves as senior scientific officer at the Mind & Life Institute. As a neuroscientist and a contemplative practitioner, she is interested in understanding how subjective experience is represented in the brain, and how the mind and brain can be transformed through experience and practice to enhance flourishing. Her research examines the neural correlates of meditation, with a focus on the shifts between mind wandering and attention. She has also contributed to neuroscience curriculum development, teaching, and textbook creation for the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, which aims to integrate science into the Tibetan monastic education system in India.