Disputing popular claims that meditation can change how people behave towards others and make them more compassionate, new research suggests this is not the case.
Meditation plays no significant role in reducing aggression or prejudice or improving how socially-connected someone is, said the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many,” said Miguel Farias from Coventry University in England.
“We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviours towards others,” Farias said.
The researchers reviewed more than 20 studies that investigated the effect of various types of meditation, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness, on pro-social feelings and behaviours.
Initial analysis indicated that meditation did have an overall positive impact.
The researchers said meditation made people feel moderately more compassionate or empathic, compared to if they had done no other new emotionally-engaging activity.
However, further analysis revealed that meditation actually played no significant role in reducing aggression or improving how socially-connected someone was.
The most unexpected result of this study was that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws — compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report.
Overall, these results suggest that the moderate improvements reported by psychologists in previous studies may be the result of methodological weaknesses and biases, said the researchers.
Their research only included studies where meditators were compared to other individuals that did not meditate.
All these studies used meditation techniques derived from Buddhism, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, but not other related activities, like yoga or Tai-Chi.
“None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists,” Farias said.