Just last month, researchers published yet another study that suggested meditation encourages people to develop more compassion and empathy toward others.
Such studies have helped to drive the mainstreaming of secular mindfulness meditation training, a trend that has swept through schools, corporations, medical schools, sports teams and even the military in recent years.
Research published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports calls those earlier studies into question, however. The new research — a meta-analysis of data from 22 separate clinical trials — found that meditation’s effect on compassion, empathy and other social behaviors is limited, at best.
Indeed, the meta-analysis identified significant methodological flaws in most of the previous studies that have claimed meditation has powerful pro-social effects.
“Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and the methodological quality of the study,” the study’s authors conclude.
They’re not saying that meditation doesn’t lead people to become kinder toward others. They’re saying that past research on the topic just hasn’t been rigorous enough to come to that conclusion.
For the meta-analysis, a team of researchers from New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom combed through more than 4,500 studies on meditation and mindfulness, looking for randomized controlled trials in which meditators were compared to a similar group of people who did not mediate.
They eventually narrowed their search to 22 studies involving a combined total of 1,685 participants. Those studies all had a minimum of one outcome that was related to at least one of five types of social behavior: compassion, empathy, aggression, prejudice and connectedness.
The data revealed that the overall impact of meditation on those behaviors was “limited.” There was some evidence that meditation had a positive influence on two of the behaviors — compassion and empathy — but those effects appeared to have been influenced by methodological weaknesses and biases.
One of those problems was a lack of “active” controls — groups of study participants who were given something to do other than meditation. Without active controls, a study cannot determine if the effect of an activity (in this case, meditation) results from the specific activity itself or from just doing something new.
Indeed, the meta-analysis found that when studies compared meditation to, say, watching a nature video, the positive effects of the meditation faded away.
Most troubling, however, was the finding that compassion and empathy increased in participants only when their meditation teacher was also an author of the paper, a situation that occurred in about half of the studies. That finding suggests that the studies may suffer from unintentional bias.
High hopes and expectations
“The popularization 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,” says Miguel Farias, one of the study’s authors and an experimental psychologist at Coventry University, in a released statement. “We wanted to investigate how powerful these technique were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviors towards others.”
“Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found,” he adds.
Farias says his findings do not necessary invalidate “Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices,” but they are “a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists.”
“To understand the true impact of meditation on people’s feelings and behavior further,” he stresses, “we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered — starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation.”
FMI: You can read the full meta-analysis at the Scientific Reports website.