Researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem investigated the relationship between a brief exposure to mindfulness meditation and prosocial helping behavior toward a stranger. Their findings revealed that when participants experienced two brief mindfulness meditation sessions, they were more likely to intend to help a stranger than individuals who listened to music or heard a lecture. Approximately 20% more of the meditation group was willing to help.
These results, published in Mindfulness, support the hypothesis that even brief exposure to mindfulness meditation increases prosocial behaviors.
Mindfulness meditation has been a popular area of study in recent decades. Research has found that it is beneficial for stress, pain control, and mental health issues. It has also been found to increase empathy and prosocial behaviors. Prior studies that explored the relationship between mindfulness and empathy/helping behaviors often utilized a long period of exposure to mindfulness meditation.
Study authors Yael Malin and Thomas Gumpel were curious if short-term exposure to mindfulness meditation would have the same result. If brief exposure to mindfulness meditation resulted in more empathy and a greater desire to help others, mindfulness could be used as a therapeutic tool in various circumstances.
The researchers recruited 189 participants between the ages of 18 and 30. The majority were women, all college students, and all had no experience with mindfulness. These 189 participants were randomly divided into three groups of at least 60 individuals. All participants completed the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ) before the experiment task. This assessment measures dispositional empathy. The purpose was to demonstrate that baseline empathy levels were similar across all three participant groups.
Participants in the experimental group received two 30-minute guided meditations, and they were to complete these meditations one week apart. The first control group was sent two recorded lectures to listen to on empathy and providing help to strangers. The second control group listened to repetitive classical music.
After the second session, participants listened to an interview with a fictional character Anna who had a chronic illness and a story of unexpected misfortune. After being presented with Anna’s story, participants responded to the Empathetic Response Questionnaire (ERQ) to assess their feelings about Anna and if they would commit to helping Anna and others in her situation.
This procedure and the resulting data yielded several interesting results. First, those in the mindfulness group were much more likely than the music or lecture group to intend to help Anna and people in similar situations. Second, they did not find similar increases when asked to volunteer to help or to commit time to an organization that would assist individuals like Anna. This was an unexpected finding as the research team anticipated that when intent to help went up, so would a willingness to commit or volunteer. Finally, those that scored high in ‘dispositional empathy’ were likely to score high in measures of empathetic care (or desire to help Anna).
The researchers acknowledge that intentions are not actions. Evidence of this difference was revealed in the findings as intent to help was high in the experimental group, but committing to actions that would help Anna remained low and equivalent to the music and lecture group. Additionally, self-report questionnaires are prone to bias, especially when participants are asked about personality traits that are culturally seen as good.
Despite these concerns, the researchers conclude with the following: “…this study showed the potential of short mindfulness in cultivating the propensity to provide help when exposed to a stranger in distress and supports the Buddhist doctrine that meditation practice cultivates compassion.”
The study, “Short mindfulness meditation increases help-giving intention towards a stranger in distress“, was authored by Yael Malin and Thomas Gumpel.