Posted 05.21.2020 | by AMRA

Human altruism is affected by various contextual and social cues as well as biological factors. Levels of altruism are associated with activity in brain regions that play a role in empathy and emotional regulation, for example, the insula, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex. Interestingly, these are also brain regions whose functions and structures are affected by mindfulness meditation.

Iwamoto et al. [Scientific Reports] tested whether a very brief, video-guided, mindfulness meditation increases altruism as assessed by charitable giving behavior compared to an inactive control intervention.

The researchers randomly assigned 326 employees from a large company (66% male; 73% Caucasian; average age = 33 years) to either a mindfulness exposure or a control group. Participants in the mindfulness group watched a 5.5-minute guided breath meditation video produced by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Control participants watched a 4.5-minute video that demonstrated how to draw a cartoon character.

After watching the videos and providing basic demographic data, participants were told they would be paid for their participation. They were then given the opportunity to donate all, some, or none of their participation payment to a popular charity organization, the United Way.

The results showed that participants in the mindfulness group donated a greater average percentage of their compensation (11%) than the control group (6%), and also donated significantly more frequently (2.6 times as often) than controls.

Mindfulness meditation had a significantly larger effect on employees under 25 years of age and employees without a college education. Furthermore, younger and less educated control participants donated very little but were significantly more generous in the mindfulness meditation group.

Ethnicity and country of residence also helped determine the level of charitable giving, regardless of study group. Hispanic employees within the United States donated at 5.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic employees. Employees residing in India donated at 5 times the rate of employees in other countries. Older age was also significantly associated with greater generosity.

The study suggests that employees who engage in a brief mindfulness meditation practice exhibit more altruism via charitable giving when given the opportunity to donate some or all of a nominal compensation. This is especially true for younger and less educated participants who are less inclined to donate after mere educational content.

The study supports the idea that briefly engaging in mindfulness meditation can momentarily increase the likelihood of altruistic behavior. It is unclear whether it does so directly through some meditation-specific effect such as activating the insula, or through invoking and raising the salience of a constellation of humanistic values. The study was limited by the brevity of its interventions and nominal donation potential.

Reference:

Iwamoto, S. K., Alexander, M., Torres, M., Irwin, M. R., Christakis, N. A., & Nishi, A. (2020). Mindfulness meditation activates altruism. Scientific Reports.

[Link to study]