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 funded by a Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Research Grant and 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.
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 clever.
The setup went as follows: When a participant arrived for her cognitive testing at the end of the study, 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,” or 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 whether the participant would feel moved to respond compassionately and give up 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.
Is it a small gesture to give up one’s chair? 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 since they tap into how we respond to our fellow humans.
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 it’s sometimes easy to feel compassion when sitting peacefully (and alone) on a cushion, but it’s in our everyday lives and interactions with others where the rubber meets the road.
Condon’s study was published in the journal Psychological Science. Co-author Gaelle Desbordes of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University is also a past Varela Grant recipient.
“Mind & Life has been a great resource for me,” said Condon. “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. I probably would not have pursued meditation as a research topic without the support of the Mind & Life community and these grants.”