Posted 03.24.2015 | by AMRA

leg_cast_170

Can mindfulness training increase real-life compassionate behavior, and can it do so when the training is delivered via a smartphone? If mindfulness training improves compassion, does it do so by enhancing one’s ability to accurately judge other people’s emotional states, or by some other means? To address these questions, Lim et al. [PLOS One] randomly assigned 69 college undergraduates to either a mindfulness meditation (MM) or cognitive skills (CS) training program. Both programs were delivered over self-guided web-based smartphone applications.

A total of 56 participants completed the three week long interventions. The MM participants engaged in 14 mindfulness meditation sessions lasting an average of 12 minutes each. The sessions did not include loving-kindness or compassion content. The CS participants engaged in 14 game-playing sessions designed to enhance memory, attention, speed, and problem solving.

After completing training, participants were asked to return to a lab waiting area that contained three chairs, two of which were already occupied by alleged “participants,” who were actually researcher confederates (i.e. actors who played participants), and the third of which was to be occupied by the participant. As they sat waiting, another confederate entered with crutches and a walking boot, acting as if in pain. The seated confederates showed indifference to the newcomer.

Researchers then observed whether or not the participants yielded their seats to the newcomer. Following this assessment of compassionate behavior, participants were assessed on their ability to identify emotions from photographs and audio clips, a test of whether the mindfulness training had also improved their ability to read other people’s emotions.

MM participants were more than twice as likely to yield their chairs than were CS participants (37% vs.14%, a statistically small-to-medium effect size). This increase in compassionate behavior was not accompanied by an increased ability to judge other’s emotions; MM and CS participants did not differ on that variable. The increased compassionate behavior may have been due to other factors such as decreased self-focus and enhanced attention to the situational field.

The results support the ability of mindfulness training to do more than make people feel better; it can help people act better as well. Smartphone applications can potentially extend the benefits of mindfulness training to those who would otherwise lack access to and the time for more immersive programs. Future research can determine whether more immersive programs might result in even larger benefits, whether maintaining enhanced compassion requires continued mindfulness practice, and help clarify the underlying mechanisms for enhancement of compassion through mindfulness training.

Reference:

Lim, D., Condon, P., & DeSteno, D. (2015). Mindfulness and compassion: An examination of mechanism and scalability. PLoS ONE, 10(2), e0118221.

[Link to abstract]