Brief instruction in a focused attention form of meditation can foster interracial helping behavior, according to a randomized controlled trial published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The research found that white people who received mindfulness meditation training were more likely to help a Black person in staged test of real-world behavior.
“Research has found benefits of mindfulness meditation in interpersonal interactions,” said study author Daniel Berry, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos. “In this study, we wanted to know if practicing mindfulness meditation would improve social well-being in a more challenging interpersonal context. People are often less likely to show kindness across social divides, and we asked whether mindfulness could increase kindness toward people of other races.”
In the study, White female graduate students were randomly assigned to either mindfulness meditation training or sham meditation training. Mindfulness trainees were taught to let go of their thoughts and focus their attention on breathing sensations in the nostrils, chest, and abdomen. Those in the sham condition were led to believe that they were receiving similar training.
Berry and his colleagues used staged lab scenarios to examine helping behavior. Before and after the training period, each participant was led into a waiting room where two other people were seated. As they waited, they either had the opportunity to help a Black person who had accidentally dropped a large stack of documents or to help a Black person on crutches by giving up their seat.
Participants who used technology, such as smartphones, while in the waiting room were 8.19 times less likely to help. On the other hand, those who scored high a measure of trait mindfulness – meaning a person’s general tendency to observe and be attentive to the present without judgment – were significantly more likely to help.
Importantly, Berry and his colleagues found that those who completed the mindfulness training were about three times more likely to help compared to those who completed the sham meditation training. This was true even after controlling for the participants’ initial pre-training helping behavior.
“People who received a mindfulness meditation training for four days, as compared to a similarly matched sham meditation, were more helpful toward same- and other-race individuals in everyday life,” Berry told PsyPost. “The sham meditation group was led to believe that they were learning mindfulness meditation. This ruled out the possibility that mindfulness trainees were more helpful toward others because that’s what they thought meditating was supposed to do.”
The researchers also had the participants completed daily assessments of helping behavior over a two-week period. The participants provided a number of details about each helping situation, including the race of the person who they interacted with. The researchers found that participants who received mindfulness training were more likely to report helping strangers and acquaintances in their day-to-day life.
The findings indicate that “practicing even a small amount of mindfulness meditation can have short-term benefits for people’s social lives,” Berry said.
However, Berry noted that “the mindfulness meditation training only increased real-world helping behavior for people who were generally less mindful in their daily lives before the study began. This means that people with ‘more room’ to improve this mental capacity saw the most social benefit.”
The researchers found that both groups displayed preferential helping toward same-race strangers and acquaintances in their daily life. This was true even among those who had a high level of trait mindfulness to begin with.
“Both mindfulness and sham meditation trainees helped same-race individuals more often than other-race individuals,” Berry said. “This is important because showing care and kindness preferentially is often a source of conflict between groups.”
“In the future, researchers should examine if mindfulness practices can compliment current efforts to improve intergroup relations,” he added.
The study, “Short-Term Training in Mindfulness Predicts Helping Behavior Toward Racial Ingroup and Outgroup Members“, was authored by Daniel R. Berry, Catherine S. J. Wall, Justin D. Tubbs, Fadel Zeidan, and Kirk Warren Brown.