New research provides evidence that mindfulness meditation training results in increases in prosocial behaviors, even in the absence of explicit ethics-based instructions. The study has been published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly popular way for people to improve various aspects of their life. But some research has cast doubt on the link between mindfulness and improved morality.
To better understand the link between mindfulness and prosocial behavior, the authors of the new research conducted a meta-analysis, a statistical procedure that combines data from several studies.
“There has been recent and warranted debate about the fidelity of secular mindfulness trainings and their effects on interpersonal outcomes,” explained study author Daniel R. Berry, an assistant professor at California State University San Marcos.
“Specifically, scientists and scholars have argued that secular mindfulness trainings lack explicit ethics found in canonical contemplative traditions. However, little research has been done to uncover if explicit instruction in ethics is necessary for mindfulness training to promote positive interpersonal outcomes.”
“Based on our lab’s experimental research, we believed that training in mindfulness promotes positive interpersonal outcomes through social cognitive changes that entail how we pay attention to others’ needs in social interactions. Mindfulness need not rely on appeals to act ethically. We designed this meta-analysis to understand if mindfulness interventions that don’t include instruction in ethics promote prosocial behaviors,” Berry said.
The researchers looked for previous studies on mindfulness that did not include explicit ethics-based language, were randomized, included at least one control condition, and examined prosocial outcomes. They found 29 studies that fit their criteria.
Their subsequent meta-analysis confirmed that mindfulness training was associated with increases in prosocial outcomes, especially increases in compassionate behavior and reductions in behaviors related to prejudice or retaliation.
“Though the benefits are modest, various practices of mindfulness itself predict greater prosocial behaviors. In particular, mindfulness promotes prosocial behaviors intended to ameliorate others’ suffering and it also reduces the tendency to retaliate against those who have transgressed against us,” Berry told PsyPost.
The new findings also provide some directions for future research.
“Our meta-analysis describes the importance of control interventions for isolating mindfulness. We suggest that researchers need to specify how the control intervention helps to isolate mindfulness, and that inactive controls are necessary in most studies on prosocial behavior,” Berry explained.
“Most studies on mindfulness and prosocial behavior use a posttest only design. In these designs, an inactive control is needed alongside an active control that isolates mindfulness; inactive controls help to specify that mindfulness increases prosocial behavior and it is not the active control that reduces it.”
“Also, we still believe that grounding mindfulness practices in ethics is a valuable research question to study. We acknowledge, however, that in such research it is challenging rule out the possibility that the ethics-based instructions are a demand characteristic. Stated differently, participants who receive these instructions may behave more prosocially because they think that is what is expected of them.”
But like all research, the study includes some caveats.
“The effects of mindfulness trainings on prosocial behaviors were only reliable when prosocial behavior was measured immediately after the training concluded. Future studies could focus on the potentially lasting prosocial outgrowths of longer-term mindfulness training in ecologically valid contexts outside of the laboratory setting.”
“Also, we should be careful interpreting the effects showing that mindfulness reduces prejudice. Specifically, most studies of prejudice in our meta-analysis did not use social ingroup as a reference to examine the gap in prosocial behavior between social ingroup and outgroup members. Thus, mindfulness may be increasing prosocial behavior toward others in general but not closing the gap in helping that typically favors ingroup members.”
The study, “Does Mindfulness Training Without Explicit Ethics-Based Instruction Promote Prosocial Behaviors? A Meta-Analysis“, was authored by Daniel R. Berry, Jonathan P. Hoerr, Selena Cesko, Amir Alayoubi, Kevin Carpio, Hannah Zirzow, Wesley Walters, Genny Scram, Katie Rodriguez, and Vanessa Beaver.