My friend Robert Wright recently gave a terrific talk at my school about his bestseller Why Buddhism Is True. He argues that Buddhism has correctly diagnosed humanity’s problem. We are victims of our incessant desires, perpetually dissatisfied. The treatment for this problem is meditation, which can give us distance from and hence reduce our cravings and other negative emotions.
Meditation not only makes us happier, Wright says, it also makes us nicer, less selfish, more considerate of others. He has observed these changes within himself, and he claims that meditation, if widely practiced, can help us overcome the aggression and tribalism that cause war and other harmful behaviors. “I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow,” he declares in Why Buddhism Is True.
Because I’m not a very nice person (in spite of taking a meditation class since last fall), I have questioned Wright’s linkage of meditation to moral behavior. In a column last August, I point out that “throughout history warriors have meditated or prayed before battle so they can fight more effectively. Today, many U.S. soldiers are taught mindfulness meditation, which presumably will help them feel better about carrying out violent U.S. policies. Moreover, a disturbing number of meditation teachers have behaved more like sociopaths than saints.”
Some Buddhists strike me as arrogant and sanctimonious, and I’m not alone in this assessment. Philosopher Owen Flanagan, although a fan of meditation and Buddhism, notes in The Bodhisattva’s Brain that “many western Buddhists I know are not very nice, both more passive-aggressive and more narcissistic than other types I prefer.” The way that Buddhists in Myanmar have treated a Muslim minority also gives me pause.
But these are anecdotes. Now a study published in Scientific Reports has cast doubt on the claim that meditation makes you nicer. Titled “The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” the study was carried out by psychologists Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias and Inti Brazil.
The researchers note the extravagant claims made for meditation, including this widely circulated quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.” Advocates of Transcendental Meditation, similarly, have asserted that it can reduce aggression and violence.
Kreplin, Farias and Brazil sought to test these claims. “Our primary aim in this article,” they write, “is to examine the extent to which the use of meditation-based techniques in healthy populations, outside of a religious context, might lead to improvements in prosociality. In other words, can meditation per se make the world a better--less aggressive and more compassionate--place?”
They began by identifying thousands of studies on meditation’s positive effects. They winnowed this list down to 22 studies, with a total of 1,685 subjects, that met minimal standards of rigor, including the comparison of meditators to a control group. Some of the control interventions were “passive,” that is, subjects were put on a waiting list. Others were “active,” and included watching a nature video or taking a course in time-management.
The studies, all of which were published since 2004, examined meditation’s effects on one or more of these prosocial and antisocial traits: compassion, empathy, connectedness, aggression and prejudice. No Transcendental Meditation studies met the researchers' standards, and most of the included studies, they assert, are methodologically “weak." In just under half, the meditation teacher was an author of the study, introducing a possible source of bias.
Meditators might be biased, too. The researchers write: “The media portrayal of meditation as a cure for a range of mental health problems or to improve well-being is very likely to feedback into participants… [O]nly one of the studies we examined controlled for expectation effects and this methodological concern is generally absent in the meditation literature.”
This concern is especially pertinent, given that most studies of meditation measure subjects’ self-reported benefits. In response to an email query, Kreplin adds that some studies measured actual behavior, such as giving up a chair in a waiting room. Others employed implicit association tests, which attempt to measure unconscious racial prejudice, for example, by determining whether subjects link words like “black” with other words with negative connotations.
Asked if she meditates, Kreplin replied, “I don’t meditate now but have dipped my toe into it in the past. I have also worked briefly with mindfulness in a clinical setting.” So what did she and her co-workers find? Their review shows that meditation has little influence on aggression, prejudice and connectedness. It causes a modest increase in compassion and empathy, but these effects decline when controls are active rather than passive and when the teacher is not an author. The researchers state that meditation
“might make one feel moderately more compassionate or empathic, but our findings suggest that these effects may be, at least in part, the result of methodological frailties, such as biases introduced by the meditation teacher, the type of control group used and the beliefs and expectations of participants about the power of meditation. This, of course, does not invalidate Buddhist or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices. However, the adaptation of spiritual practices into the lab suffers from methodological weaknesses and is partly immersed in theoretical mist.”
That's a pretty kind summation. By the way, Robert Wright, to his credit, is doing more to make the world a better place than just telling people to meditate. He recently started the “Mindfulness Resistance Project” to promote rational, non-tribal responses to “Trumpism” and related problems. I urge you to check out this project. Unlike Wright's writings on spirituality, I’ve always found his political analyses persuasive.