Buddhists practice meditation in order to cultivate a state of calmness and compassion. Through this mental technique, they train the mind to stay focused and ethical, regardless of what the world throws at them. In theory, then, Buddhist practitioners should display greater levels of compassion and kindness than those who do not practice any sort of meditation at all. To test this, social neuroscientist Cade McCall and colleagues compared meditation practitioners with non-practitioners and found that those who practice meditation emotionally handle unfairness better than those who do not practice meditation.
More precisely, the researchers hypothesize that, in comparison with non-practitioners, long-term practitioners of meditation would respond to unfairness with less anger, be less inclined to punish perpetrators of second-party unfairness, and be more willing to compensate third-party victims of fairness. The researchers also predicted that there would be no difference between the two groups when it came to perpetrators of third-party unfairness (they reasoned that since meditation cultivates compassion, and compassion has no relation with fairness and justice, meditation practitioners should not display any differences in fairness or justice. Instead, they would recognize instances of unfairness and injustice just like everyone else, but they would respond with less anger and in a calmer state of mind).
Their study involved 18 long-term meditation practitioners of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This Buddhist tradition in particular emphasizes cultivating compassion. The researchers also found 15 age-matched controls.
To see whether or not Buddhists in fact display more compassion than the non-meditation practitioners, all the participants played three economic games. Before playing the games, they had to pay a fee for their participation in these experiments, where they would win real money by performing well in the economic game. Each participant played three dictator games, where they have the power to respond to a dictator who acts unjustly to innocent parties. In the first game, that innocent party is the participant him- or herself. In the second game, it is a third-party unknown to the participant. Finally, in the third game, the dictator once again treats a third-party unfairly, only this time the participant can give compensation to the victim. Participants punished the dictator by paying real money; the more money they pay, the greater the punishment would be inflicted upon the dictator (whatever money they spent, the dictator would lose triple that amount). Likewise, when it came to the third game, the more money they pay, the greater compensation would be given to the victim.
After playing these games, the participants completed a series of surveys. The surveys measured the emotional state of the participants upon hearing of the unfair actions of the dictator. The emotions listed included anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust. They answered these questions twice, from both the second-party and third-party perspective.
As predicted, meditation practitioners punished the dictator when they were the victim significantly less than the control group. However, also as predicted, no difference occurred between the two groups when it came to third-party victim punishment for the dictator. The meditation practitioners, in contrast to non-practitioners, spent more money on compensating the victim of the dictator. They also exhibited less anger in the post-game survey then not practitioners. In short, all four of the researchers’ hypotheses were supported.
It would appear, therefore, that meditation not only has a theoretical effect on the mind and affections but very real and practical effects. Those who practice meditation and displayed more compassion and willingness to more to third-party victims and less anger in the face of injustice. While meditation appears in various popular media, such as video games, movies, and certain New Age trends, its real purpose should not be forgotten.
For more, see “Compassion meditators show less anger, less punishment, and more compensation of victims in response to fairness violations” in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.