Long-term meditators may be perceived by strangers as less neurotic and more comfortable in their own skin

New research provides some preliminary evidence that long-term meditators tend to be perceived differently than non-meditators — based on their appearance alone. The study, which was published in PLOS One, compared facial photographs of experienced meditators to non-meditators

“We were interested in moving beyond self-report methodologies for assessing the potential impact of contemplative practices such as meditation. We were particularly curious about the possibility that short- and/or long-term meditation training may impact social perception (i.e. how one is perceived by others),” said study author Simon Goldberg, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and affiliate faculty at the Center for Healthy Minds.

In the study, a research assistant photographed 16 long-term meditators and 83 non-meditating participants. To obtain a spontaneous facial expression, the participants were only told “we’re just going to take your photo.”

The long-term meditators had practiced Vipassana and compassion/loving-kindness meditation for at least three years.

A group of 86 undergraduate students and a group of 25 meditation teachers were then asked to view the photos and rate each participant on a variety of traits. The research assistant and the two groups of raters were unaware which participants were long-term meditators and which were not.

The researchers found some differences in how the long-term meditators and the non-meditating participants tended to be perceived.

“Our study raises the possibility that long-term meditation training is associated with being perceived more positively by others. In our study, long-term meditators were perceived as less neurotic, more conscientious, more mindful, and more comfortable in their own skin than demographically matched controls without previous meditation experience.”

Some of the non-meditating participants underwent an 8-week meditation program and were photographed again afterward. But “we did not find that short-term meditation training had any effect on these perceptions,” Goldberg said.

The researchers controlled for the potentially confounding effects of age, gender, race/ethnicity, body mass index, and attractiveness. But like all research, the study includes some caveats.

The cross-sectional design of the study makes it difficult to determine causality. Meditation training could cause people to be perceived as more conscientious and mindful, but it is also possible that people who are already perceived as more conscientious and mindful are more likely to become meditators.

“We cannot conclude that long-term practice caused changes in perception, but this could be the case,” Goldberg said. “We also did not determine what aspects of their facial behavior were being interpreted by the raters. A future study could assess potential effects of meditation training in situations that may be more likely to show a signal (e.g. a stressful situation) and assess behavior using a ‘thicker’ slice (e.g. audiovisual recordings.)”

The study, “Still facial photographs of long-term meditators are perceived by naïve observers as less neurotic, more conscientious and more mindful than non-meditating controls“, was authored by Simon B. Goldberg, Matthew Hirshberg, Lawrence Y. Tello, Helen Y. Weng, Lisa Flook, and Richard J. Davidson.