New research finds when non-believers engage in Buddhist practices, they experience an increase in their capacity for patience. In a five-part study, published the European Journal of Social Psychology, non-believers visited a Buddhist temple or chanted, then completed an assessment of self-control.
Research has found that religious people are more likely to delay gratification for future rewards. Research has also found that delayed gratification is essential to success, sometimes more important than other factors like intelligence or creativity. Therefore, determining practices or behaviors that may increase the capacity to delay gratification could benefit people significantly.
In recent years, Buddhist practices like meditation and mindfulness have made their way into the mainstream. Meditation and mindfulness are common and well-researched; they have been found to reduce anxiety, increase feelings of well-being, reduce blood pressure, and improve concentration. Much of the research on mindfulness or meditation involve weeks or months of consistent practice. Ziyi Wang of Zhejiang University and her colleagues were curious to know if brief exposure to simple Buddhist practices would affect the capacity to delay gratification.
Part one of this five-part experiment obtained 99 participants as they were visiting the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, China. Forty-four participants were Buddhists, and the remaining 55 identified as non-believers.
Before they entered the temple, participants were asked to make four intertemporal choices. Intertemporal choices offer someone a choice between one option that is immediately available and another option that will be larger but will not be available until a later time.
Once they exited the temple, they were asked to respond to another four intertemporal choice questions. Analysis of this data revealed that non-believers were more likely to choose the more significant but delayed choice after visiting the temple. However, this effect was not seen for the Buddhist participants, and one hypothesis is that they visit the temple so frequently that the power of that environment to change their behavior has diminished.
Part two of the experiment recruited 68 participants who identified as non-believers. They were randomly assigned to an experimental and control group. Participants were asked to make six intertemporal choices three days before the experiment. On the third day, those in the experimental group watched a video of Buddhist monks chanting in front of a portrait of the Buddha.
Next, participants were asked to chant internally “Namo Amitabha” along with the video while placing their hands together in front of their chest. The control group watched a video of geometric shapes and ambient sounds. Then each group was again asked to respond to the same intertemporal choices. Those in the chanting group showed significantly more willingness to wait for the larger reward after the chanting. The control group showed no change at all.
Part three had 58 students divided into two groups, and the procedure of part two was repeated with some additional assessments afterward. The participants took a measure of belief in future-oriented concepts (karma, reincarnation) and self-control. This endeavor revealed that engaging in a Buddhist practice increased self-control and choosing the delayed option in their intertemporal questions. In this group, there was no evidence that the belief in future-oriented concepts was the cause of the post-experiment changes.
Part four had 58 students replicate part three but used intertemporal questions that involved real-world investment decisions. This was done using tokens that they could use to either receive money now or invest and receive double the amount in two weeks. Again, the results indicated that the chanting increased participants’ desire to wait for a larger reward.
Finally, part five recruited 105 individuals to repeat parts three and four. In this setting, they combined the original intertemporal choices and investment choices, so participants had to answer both questions. The results from this adaptation were the same as the others; non-believers were more likely to wait for a larger reward when exposed to Buddhist behaviors.
The conclusions that can be made from these studies may be limited as it may be challenging to determine what was the origin of this capacity to delay gratification after exposure to Buddhist practices. For example, the origin may be the activity’s meditative aspect or the experience’s religiosity; from the data collected, this cannot be known. Additionally, it may have been possible that participants figured out the type of response that may have been desired with the intertemporal choices.
Despite these limitations, the research team feels their work was meaningful. They conclude with the following, “With five studies we reached the conclusion that experiencing religious practice (or Buddhist practice) can increase non-believers’ self-control, which in turn strengthen their preference for LL (later & larger) options in intertemporal decision-making.”
The study, “Experiencing Buddhist practices promotes nonbelievers’ preference for future rewards in intertemporal choices”, was authored by Ziyi Wang, Cheng Chen, Jian Mo, Fan Lu, Jiatao Ma, Chuansheng Chen, and Guibing He.