Snipers are known to meditate in order to disengage emotionally from the act of killing, to steady the hand that takes a life the element of peacefulness associated with meditation having been rather set aside. Corporations counteract stress and burnout with meditation which, on the surface, is an amiable aim, but it can also help create compliant workers. Here, too, the goal is to reduce misbehaviour and aggression in a bid to increase prosociality and compliance. Psychological research often upholds this optimism about the efficacy of meditation. Indeed, studies on the prosocial effects of meditation almost always support the power of meditation — the power not only of transforming the individual but of changing society.
So it appears well-grounded that meditation might improve socially advantageous behaviour. This brings with it the prospect of applications in a variety of contexts, where it might find its use in social conflicts, such as mitigation of war and terrorism. The problem, however, is with the research that bolsters such claims.
Last year, the experimental psychologists Miguel Farias, Inti A Brazil and I conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis that examined the scientific literature behind the claim that meditation increases prosociality. We looked at randomised controlled studies, where meditators were compared with non-meditating individuals, and reviewed more than 20 studies that evaluated the effect of various types of meditation on prosocial feelings and behaviours such as how compassionate, empathetic or connected individuals felt.
The studies we reviewed used a variety of methodologies and interventions. Meanwhile the control group, with which the meditators were compared, engaged in a weekly group discussion about the benefits of compassion. Another study compared guided relaxation participants listening to an audio recording about deep breathing and unwinding with a control group that simply did nothing in a waiting room.
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Most studies required participants to fill in questionnaires about their experience of the meditation intervention, and their levels of compassion towards themselves and others. Some studies also included behavioural measures of compassion, in one case assessed by how willing a person was to give up a chair in a staged full waiting room. Initially, the results were promising. Our meta-analysis indicated that meditation did indeed have a positive, though moderate, impact on prosociality.
But digging deeper, the picture became more complicated. While meditation made people feel somewhat more compassionate or empathetic, it did not reduce aggression or prejudice, nor did it improve how socially connected one felt. So the prosocial benefits are not straightforward, but they are apparently measurable.
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The issue is the way in which those benefits were measured. T o fully dissect the studies, we conducted a secondary comparison to see how methodological considerations would change our initial findings. This analysis looked at the use of control groups and whether the teacher of the intervention was also an author of the study, which might be an indication of bias.
The results were astounding. The purpose of the control group is to isolate the effects of the intervention in our case, meditation and to eliminate unintentional bias. The importance of adequate control conditions was first brought to light by the discovery of the placebo effect in drug trials, which is when a treatment is effective even though no active agent or drug is used. To avoid this effect, each group in a drug trial receives identical treatments, except one group receives a placebo or sugar pill and the other gets the real drug.
Neither the experimenter nor the participants know who is in which trial this is called a double-blind design , which helps to eliminate unintentional bias. But the use of adequate controls is tricky in studies that look at behavioural change, because it is harder to create a control group or placebo when the treatment is not just a pill but an action. The control has to be similar to the intervention but lack some important components that differentiate it from the experimental counterpart.
This is known as an active control.
A passive control group simply does nothing, compared with the group that has the intervention. Meditation did indeed improve compassion when the intervention was compared with a passive control group, that is, a group that completed only the questionnaires and surveys but did not engage in any real activity.
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So participants who undertook eight weeks of loving-kindness meditation were found to have improved compassion following the intervention — compared with a passive waiting-room control group. Our analysis suggests that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.
But have we isolated the effects of meditation or are we simply demonstrating that doing something is better than doing nothing? It might be that compassion improved simply because individuals spent eight weeks thinking about being more compassionate, and felt good about having engaged in a new activity. An active control group eg, participants taking part in a discussion about compassion is a more effective tool to isolate the effects of the meditation intervention because both groups have now engaged in a new activity that involves cultivating compassion.
And here the results of our analysis suggest that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place. A well-designed control condition allows studies with a double-blind design. Developing an effective placebo for a meditation intervention is often said to be impossible, but it has in fact been done — and with considerable success.
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In the heydays of transcendental meditation research in the s, Jonathan C Smith developed a page manual describing the rationale and benefits of a meditation technique. He gave the manual to a research assistant, who was unaware that the technique was completely made-up — therefore, a placebo — and who then proceeded to give a lecture to participants in the control group about the merits of the technique.
When it came to the actual placebo technique, participants were instructed to sit quietly for 20 minutes twice per day in a dark room, and to think of anything they wanted. Double-blind designs can help to eliminate the accidental bias of the participants through the researcher. The importance of avoiding experimenter bias and demand characteristics was discussed as early as the s.
Recent work indicates that experimenter biases remain — particularly in the study of meditation. More importantly, little attempt was made to control for any potential bias that an enthusiastic teacher and researcher might have had on the participants.
Such a bias is often not intentional but stems from subconsciously giving preferential treatment or being particularly enthusiastic to participants in the experimental group. The prevalence of authors as teachers was so great that we decided to look at it statistically in our meta-analysis. We compared studies that had used an author with studies that had used an external teacher or other form of instruction eg, an audio recording.
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We found that compassion increased only in those studies where the author was also the teacher of the intervention. Experimenter bias often goes hand-in-hand with demand characteristics, where participants behave or respond in a way that they think is in line with the expectations of the researcher. For example, participants might respond — regardless of their true feelings — more enthusiastically on a questionnaire about compassion because the researcher herself was enthusiastic about compassion.
Yet, almost none of the studies we examined controlled for expectation effects, and this methodological concern is generally absent in the meditation literature.
The prevalence of experimenter bias is only one side of the coin. Another troubling but rarely discussed bias concerns data-analysis and reporting. Interpreting statistical results and choosing what to highlight is challenging. All were overwhelmingly present in the meditation literature we reviewed.
Confirmation bias was particularly prevalent in the form of an over-reporting of marginally significant results.
When using statistical testing, a p-value of 0. It is debatable whether p-values are not the most accurate way to conduct science anyway , but we should stick to the rules if we are using this type of testing. The positive view of meditation and the fight to protect its reputation make it harder to publish negative results.
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In this essay, students will write a paragraph essay explaining how acts of kindness can make the world a better place. This essay includes an introduction paragraph, body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph. There is a checklist for the writing proc. Activities , Outlines , Bulletin Board Ideas. Students write about their dreams of how to make the world a better place.
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