Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.

Look Around and Look Within

Our digital devices might make us kinder

Mindfulness taught over mobile phones increases compassionate behavior.

Posted Jul 17, 2015

Henry James once wrote,

                       Three things in human life are important:

The first is to be kind;

the second is to be kind;

and the third is to be kind.

Maybe our digital devices can help us discover all three.

A few years ago the New York Times published a report showing that meditation improved compassionate behavior. The researchers developed a clever means of measuring compassion in real life situations. Arriving at the research laboratory for testing, a participant would be asked to wait in an outer office and it was during the wait period that the real experiment happened. Two confederates (people working in the study) would sit on 2 of 3 chairs in the waiting room, as if they were waiting their turns. A participant would enter and invariably sit on the one empty chair. Then a third confederate would enter the room wearing a large walking boot and using crutches. She would express mild pain by wincing, let out a sign of discomfort, and lean against the wall waiting. The measure of compassion was whether the participant would offer his/her seat to her. (The confederates occupying the chairs and ignoring the suffering woman on crutches tends to lessen helping behavior by participants—it’s a phenomenon known as ‘the bystander effect’—if no one else does anything, why should I?)

In that study, mindfulness or compassion meditation was given to one group of students and their behavior compared to those given nothing in particular (wait list controls).    Compassionate behavior was 3 times greater in the meditation group than controls.

This year a new study by the same research group took it a step further. First, the mindfulness practices were guided meditations found on Headspace ( and delivered by Smart phones. This ‘treatment’ condition was compared with a practice of similar duration and frequency but instead of mindfulness, it was cognitive and memory training found on Luminosity ( The researchers also included a direct measure of how well people recognized emotions, as a means of assessing whether compassion changed as a function of a change in emotion detection.  

The same method was used to measure compassion but this time the person in boot and crutches was sometimes a man and sometimes a woman. Of 69 college students that participated, the group using the Headspace meditations offered their seat to the suffering confederate 37% of the time while those that did Luminosity only helped 14% of the time; a 3-fold increase similar to the findings of the earlier study. The two groups performed equally well on emotion detection so that wasn’t a likely explanation for the findings.

Kindness arises with mindfulness practice—why exactly isn’t yet clear. It’s good to know that our digital devices might be powerful tools for spreading it.


Lim D, Condon P, DeSteno D (2015) Mindfulness and Compassion: An Examination of Mechanism and Scalability. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118221. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118221

Guided meditations can be found on Headspace as well as MARC (

About the Author

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at the UCLA Semel Institute and the Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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