Posted 02.15.2018 | by AMRA

While people generally regard helpfulness and friendliness to be virtues, they often fail to extend their empathy to strangers in need. Berry et al. [Journal of Experimental Psychology] conducted a series of four experiments to see whether mindfulness—as an individual’s disposition and as an induced mental state—increases prosocial behavior towards an excluded stranger by increasing empathic concern.

In the first study, 82 undergraduates (52% female, 58% Caucasian) completed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) and the Act with Awareness subscale of the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). Participants then watched a Cyberball computer game involving three computer-generated characters playing catch. Participants were misled into believing that the computer-generated characters represented three live participants playing the game in other rooms. During the observed game, two characters excluded the third character by passing the ball only between themselves.

After watching the game, participants were assessed for empathic concern and distress, and asked to write emails to each of the players. Empathic concern is the desire to help others, whereas empathic distress often leads to focusing on relieving one’s own distress rather than helping others. Participants then played a game of Cyberball together with the other characters. The researchers rated the helpfulness of the emails written to the excluded character, and counted how often the participant threw the ball to the excluded character.

The study found that higher mindfulness was significantly associated with higher empathic concern (but not empathic distress), more helpful emails, and a greater number of ball throws to the excluded character.

In the second study, 83 undergraduates (68% female, 44% Caucasian) completed the same personality measures and followed the same Cyberball protocol as in the first study. Before playing Cyberball, participants were randomly assigned to listen to audio-recorded instructions for either a brief (8.5 minute) mindfulness or attention-based training. The mindfulness training focused participants on moment-to-moment somatic, cognitive, and affective experiencing. The attention-based training centered on the importance of focusing on goals.

The results showed that mindfulness trainees had significantly higher levels of empathic concern than attention-focused trainees, and the same level of empathic distress. Mindfulness trainees sent significantly more helpful emails and threw the ball significantly more often to the excluded character.

In the third study with 146 undergraduates (76% female, 40% Caucasian), a “no instruction” control group was added to the design of the second study, along with a measure of empathic anger. As in the second study, mindfulness training significantly increased empathic concern, email helpfulness, and ball throwing to the excluded character relative to both the attention-based and “no instruction” conditions. The groups didn’t significantly differ in empathic distress or empathic anger.

The fourth study randomly assigned 131 undergraduates (69% female, 44% Caucasian) to either mindfulness training, progressive muscle relaxation training, or a “no instructions” control prior to watching and playing Cyberball. A self-report measure of concentration was taken after observing the Cyberball game.

Mindfulness significantly increased empathic concern, email helping, and ball throws to the excluded character relative to the muscle relaxation and no instruction controls. The groups didn’t differ in concentration, so all the groups were equally attentive to the experimental tasks.

In a statistical analysis of combined study results, mindfulness training yielded moderate effect sizes for empathic concern (g=.54), email helping (g=.67) and ball throwing (g=.62). Dispositional mindfulness effects were small (g=.14-.32).

Consistent findings from these repeated studies show that mindfulness training and a mindful disposition increase prosocial behavior to an excluded stranger. They also demonstrate that mindfulness does this by increasing empathic concern and not by increasing empathic distress, empathic anger, concentration, or relaxation.

The study is limited by the degree to which computer-based Cyberball findings can be generalized to real-life contexts. However, they may have a direct relevance to social media phenomena such as on-line social exclusion and bullying.


Berry, D. R., Cairo, A. H., Goodman, R. J., Quaglia, J. T., Green, J. D., & Brown, K. W. (2018). Mindfulness increases prosocial responses toward ostracized strangers through empathic concern. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 147(1), 93-112.

[Link to abstract]