Can Prosocial Behavior be Improved with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“meditation made people feel moderately more compassionate or empathic, compared to if they had done no other new emotionally-engaging activity. But further analysis revealed that it played no significant role in reducing aggression or prejudice or improving how socially-connected someone was.” – James Anderson
Humans are social animals. This is a great asset for the species as the effort of the individual is amplified by cooperation. In primitive times, this cooperation was essential for survival. But in modern times it is also essential, not for survival but rather for making a living and for the happiness of the individual. This ability to cooperate is so essential to human flourishing that it is built deep into our DNA and is reflected in the structure of the human nervous system. Empathy and compassion are essential for appropriate social engagement and cooperation. In order for these abilities to emerge and strengthen, individuals must be able to see that other people are very much like themselves.
Mindfulness has been found to increase prosocial behaviors such as altruism, compassion and empathy and reduce antisocial behaviors such as violence and aggression. In today’s Research News article “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5799363/ ), Kreplin and colleagues review, summarize and perform a meta-analysis of the published research literature on the effectiveness of meditation practice for the promotion of prosocial behaviors. They reviewed randomized controlled trials that examined meditation or mindfulness effects on “empathy, relationship, connectedness, compassion, love, interpersonal, anger, social, altruism, outgroup, thankfulness, forgiveness, prosocial.”
They found 16 published randomized controlled trials. The meta-analysis indicated that there were overall small but significant effects of meditation or mindfulness training on prosocial behavior, especially compassion and empathy. There were no significant effects on aggression or prejudice. These results suggest that meditation or mindfulness training has small but positive effects on prosocial but not antisocial behaviors.
Limiting the interpretation of the findings, they found that the effects on compassion were only present when the trainer for meditation or mindfulness was a listed author on the study. This raises the possibility that experimenter bias may have had a major influence such that the beliefs of the researcher that the training would be effective influenced the participants behaviors. In addition, they found that the effects on compassion were only present when the control, comparison, condition was passive, such as a wait-list or no-treatment control, with no significant effects when an active, alternative treatment, control condition was included. This raises the possibility that participant expectancies may have had major influences such that the beliefs of the participants that the training would be effective influenced the participants behaviors. Hence, the small positive results on prosocial behaviors may have been due to weaknesses in the research designs of the studies rather than to the effects of meditation and mindfulness training.
These results are important in that they point to issues with the research design that may have been responsible for significant effects. This calls into question the actual effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness training on prosocial behavior. Obviously, more tightly controlled research is necessary to determine if meditation and mindfulness training can be used to improve positive social behaviors.
“Mindfulness is more than just moment-to-moment awareness. It is a kind, curious awareness that helps us relate to ourselves and others with compassion.” – Shauna Shapiro
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Kreplin, U., Farias, M., & Brazil, I. A. (2018). The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 8, 2403. http://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20299-z
Many individuals believe that meditation has the capacity to not only alleviate mental-illness but to improve prosociality. This article systematically reviewed and meta-analysed the effects of meditation interventions on prosociality in randomized controlled trials of healthy adults. Five types of social behaviours were identified: compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice. Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality. Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one. Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area.