College students who complete an eight-week compassion meditation class tend to write more optimistic letters to a convicted murderer, according to new research published in the scientific journal Cognition and Emotion. The findings indicate the some forms of meditation can influence expressions of compassion toward transgressors.

“My research focuses on how culture shapes our emotions. I am particularly interested in the cultural shaping of compassion,” said study author Birgit Koopmann-Holm, an assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

“My co-authors and I noticed that most of the previous work on compassion focuses on compassionate acts towards people we can easily identify and empathize with. This stems in part from Western conceptualizations of compassion, which suggest empathy is necessary for compassion.”

“For example, in the negative state relief model (Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973), the more empathy and sadness a person feels toward a target, the more likely she will help that target. Similarly, in the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson, 1981), people are more likely to help if they feel empathy for the targets,” Koopmann-Holm explained.

“However, in our multicultural societies, we frequently interact with people from different political, religious, and national backgrounds who might be difficult to relate to. Therefore, we were interested in whether different kinds of meditation can increase compassion towards someone people usually cannot easily empathize with.”

In the study, 74 female college students were randomly assigned to either a compassion meditation class, a mindfulness meditation class, an improvisational theatre class, or a no class control group. The improvisational theatre class was used as an active control group and none of the participants had prior experience with meditation.

After completing eight weeks of classes, the participants read a letter from a remorseful convict who had murdered his friend “in a blind fit of rage” and was seeking someone outside of prison to communicate with. The participants were given the option to write back to the inmate or not.

“We chose the extreme case of a convicted murderer. This is in line with a Buddhist conceptualization of compassion, which includes the dimension of extensivity (the notion that everyone can feel compassion towards all beings, including transgressors),” Koopmann-Holm explained.

At least half of participants across all four groups decided to write a letter back. After systematically coding the letters, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in how empathic, sympathetic, or forgiving participants were in their letters. But they did find that that those in the compassion meditation group wrote letters that were more optimistic compared to their counterparts.

“In a randomized controlled trial, we found that compassion meditation training specifically increased one expression of compassion: how optimistic people felt about a convicted murderer’s future,” Koopmann-Holm told PsyPost.

“Furthermore, we found that participants in the compassion meditation class wrote more optimistic letters compared to participants in the other conditions in part because they valued happiness more. These findings raise the possibility that some forms of meditation may help increase our compassion toward others, even those with whom we might not feel an immediate connection.”

But as with all research, the study includes some limitations. “Our sample size was relatively small and hence, our study was not well-powered to detect small effects,” Koopmann-Holm said.

“Conclusions about the effects of meditation on compassion necessarily depend on the researchers’ design decisions. If we had only examined one type of meditation and one expression of compassion, we might have falsely concluded that meditation has no effect on compassion. If we only used a Western conceptualization of compassion, we might not have examined the effects of compassion meditation on responses towards transgressors.”

“Our findings also reveal a potential mechanism for why people help: compassion meditation may increase how much people value positive states, which may increase their optimism about a target’s future. Finally, because we included an active control group, we can infer that these effects are specific to compassion meditation,” Koopmann-Holm said.

It is unclear how well the results generalize to other cultures. Among the U.S. participants, compassion meditation increased optimism through the valuation of happiness. But that might not be the case in other contexts.

“My past work suggests that compassion can be expressed in different ways: We examined cultural differences in how people respond to learning that an acquaintance has lost a loved one (Koopmann-Holm & Tsai, 2014). People in U.S. American cultural contexts responded to the acquaintance’s loss by focusing on the positive; they preferred to send sympathy cards that contained more positive words and phrases such as ‘love lives on,'” Koopmann-Holm said.

“People in German cultural contexts, in contrast, preferred to send cards that contained more negative words and phrases such as ‘no one truly understands the sadness you must be going through.’ Thus, when responding to another’s pain, U.S. Americans express optimism, whereas Germans express empathy.”

“Indeed, in another study, we found individual and cultural differences in what people consider a compassionate response to be (Koopmann-Holm, Bruchmann, Pearson, & Fuchs, 2020): while for some people, being optimistic and focusing on the positive was seen as ‘compassionate’; for others, acknowledging the pain and focusing on the negative was seen as ‘compassionate,'” Koopmann-Holm added.

“Future studies should examine whether compassion meditation has similar effects in other cultural contexts where focusing on the negative is regarded as more normative and compassionate. Indeed, it is likely that different interventions may be effective for promoting compassion among different individuals in different cultures.”

The study, “Compassion meditation increases optimism towards a transgressor“, was authored by Birgit Koopmann-Holm, Jocelyn Sze, Thupten Jinpa, and Jeanne L. Tsai.