Can Mindfulness Make Us Kinder?

Attending to the present moment may prompt more compassionate action.

Posted Oct 03, 2018

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo learns that he’s been banished from his beloved hometown of Verona after killing Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. Romeo doesn’t take the news well:

ROMEO: There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death: then banished,
Is death mis-term'd: calling death banishment,
Thou cutt'st my head off with a golden axe,
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.

Dramatic emotions aside, Romeo’s speech reminds us how painful social rejection can be. In fact, parts of the brain that are activated by physical pain are also sparked by social pain. Feeling ignored or excluded by our romantic partner, family members, friends, colleagues, or even strangers can be a powerful trigger for social pain. In one way or another, we’ve all felt the pain of being banished. The experience of actual or perceived rejection is distressing, and prolonged feelings of rejection can lead to loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, and aggression against the perpetrators of the rejection. It can even lead to physical illness.

'Social exclusion' by Scott Merrick / CC by 2.0
Source: 'Social exclusion' by Scott Merrick / CC by 2.0

Undesirable as such effects are, they are likely hard-wired into us by evolution. As social beings, we are dependent on others for our very survival, and emotional and physical distress may be our brain’s way of signaling that our need to be in relationships with others—to belong—is threatened. The strength of this signal is remarkable. Experiments conducted by social psychologists over many years have found that even being excluded in a simple computer-based ball-tossing game—by strangers the participant never sees—reliably and rapidly triggers painful emotions.

Unfortunately, in today’s hyperconnected world, opportunities to feel rejected are abundant. In one of the most egregious forms of rejection, bullying has become a serious, and even deadly issue in cyberspace. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the psychological effects of bullying and other forms of social rejection, which can lead to suicide or deadly violence. People who use social media are also more likely to witness someone being ignored, excluded, or bullied. While witnessing ostracism can provoke empathic concern and help offered to the victim, this reaction is often reserved for those we feel close to, such as family members, friends, and people with whom we share common characteristics. Situational factors can also get in the way: When we see that no one else is helping, we are less likely to interpret the situation as requiring help.

Recently, a graduate student and I came to believe that in an increasingly interconnected world, there is a pressing need to ask how prosocial action can be encouraged in the face of such obstacles. We decided to see whether presence, or mindfulness, held an important key. It’s long been proposed that when we are more present, or openly available to what is happening right in front of us, we are more likely to really see it and to engage with it in an open-minded and open-hearted way.

To test this idea, we conducted a series of studies wherein participants were randomly assigned to several instructional conditions. In the key condition, participants engaged in a brief mindfulness exercise by listening to recorded instructions that encouraged them to become more aware of and receptive to their moment-to-moment experiences, including their thoughts, emotions, and physical states. After the exercises, participants took part in a game designed to model an online situation in which a person is being ostracized—and in which there is opportunity to act pro-socially toward that person. The participants first observed people playing a game called Cyberball, which is a computer-based ball-toss game that was designed to study social rejection. One “player”—actually just a computer simulation—stopped receiving the ball after a few opening tosses and was excluded as a result.

The participants were then asked to write emails to the game’s players. Participants who completed the mindfulness exercise wrote emails that showed more warmth and kindness to the victim than those of participants who had done different exercises. Then we invited participants to play Cyberball with the players they had been observing. Participants who had received mindfulness instruction made significantly more ball tosses to the previously excluded player.

In these studies, all of the people the participants observed were strangers to them, and the “person” being ostracized was never actually seen in a photo or in-person. Despite this, those getting just a nine-minute dose of mindfulness practice felt more empathic concern for the victim, which then led to more expressions of kindness towards them. Interestingly, this came without feeling more upset about what they witnessed, which may have allowed these participants to more easily “be present” for the strangers that they were seeing being victimized. Neither did the mindful participants feel righteous anger toward the perpetrators of the exclusion. Mindfulness appeared to promote more compassionate action without the need to victimize the victimizers.

Future research will need to show whether the results of these studies hold up, and especially whether mindfulness can foster more kindness in real-life contexts. The current social and political climate has made many people less likely to be kind to strangers, and especially to those we consider to be “not one of us.” But in a global village where people are more connected with and more reliant upon each other than ever before, the question bears asking: Can our natural capacity for presence help us to be kind toward people we may not otherwise feel concern for?

References

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, 93-112. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000392