Mindfulness for Empathy and Kindness

TIME magazine reported last month on a recent study that showed that participants who learned mindfulness were more likely to show concern and act to help a person who was ostracized in an online scenario. From the article:

“When people witness someone being victimized, it’s really common for us to get distressed by it,” says study author Daniel Berry, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos. But that distress doesn’t always translate into empathy. “Sometimes that upset is displaced so that we’re not feeling upset for the other person; we’re just feeling negatively,” Berry explains. “When that happens, people actually tend to turn away from the person in need.”

The study authors suggest that mindfulness allows participants to better regulate their emotions and thus to be more present with the distressed/victimized strangers. 

The researchers observed marked increases in empathetic behavior among players who did mindfulness training before beginning the game, compared to people who did attention training or no training at all, Berry says. While everyone in the study was able to identify the ostracized character, players who had undergone mindfulness training showed more concern for that person and were more likely to compensate for their exclusion with extra tosses during the next round, or with kind words in a post-game follow-up email. (TIME)

So in this case the mindfulness training made people act in kinder ways.

The study seems to support another one from 2015 in which participants were trained and then instructed to go to a waiting room. The room only had 3 chairs. Two were occupied. The participant naturally took the third, but then entered a person on crutches. The test was: would the participant get up for the injured individual? 

Only 16 percent of our subjects (or three people out of 19) offered their chair to the actor on crutches. But of those who meditated, half (10 of 20) immediately and spontaneously offered their seat to the woman. It’s important to note that none of the participants had meditated before, and were all equally interested in signing up for the course (even though they knew some might be assigned to a waitlist). The resulting differences, then, didn’t stem from any factors related to a pre-existing interest in or experience with mindfulness. The only difference between the groups was that one meditated for eight weeks and the other didn’t.  (The Atlantic)

Both studies point to the commonly studied "bystander effect" in which individuals see a distressed individual and can ignore them because they see others ignoring them. Both studies suggest that with mindfulness this doesn't occur: the (more basic?) human connection to the suffering person overrides the bystander effect or eliminates it from the start.

It's worth noting that the second, earlier study was small and would merit attempts at replication. The first one, while larger, should also be rigorously checked, as per the scientific method, for replicability to ensure that mistakes weren't made in design, implementation, or interpretation of the study.

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