Sometimes contemplative science seems to reach toward lofty goals with high-tech methods as it seeks to understand how meditation can impact attention, depression, and even gene activity. Other times, it drills down to everyday human experiences, as simple as deciding whether to offer a seat to someone on crutches.
The American cultural norms around offering a seat have been an interest of psychology for decades, ever since Stanly Milgram (of obedience study fame) and his students discovered that asking someone to give up their seat could create true physical discomfort. Meditation researchers were more interested in the other end of the equation, though: would an 8-week course in meditation incline people to offer their seat to an injured woman?
At the end of their course, each new meditators came to a laboratory, thinking they would complete some cognitive tests. In reality, the experiment took place in the waiting room, where they would arrive to discover only one free chair. Shortly after they sat in it, a woman with a cast would arrive, wincing as she maneuvered along on crutches, and take up position near the chairs. All the other occupants of chairs were confederates who pretended to be oblivious to her plight; the meditators didn’t know it, but they had 2 minutes to offer their chair before being categorized as “nonhelping”.
In good news for meditation trainers everywhere, half of the meditation students offered their seat to the woman on crutches, while only 16% (3 out of 19) of adults pulled from the class waiting list did. This compassionate response seems to stem from meditation itself, not compassion training, as it was there even when meditators received attention-based training with no discussion of other people’s suffering or loving-kindness meditation training.
It’s nowhere near enough to say that meditation may be the panacea to rampant self-interest on the subway system, but it does suggest that recent participants in a meditation training program might make for pleasant company.
Condon P., Desbordes G., Miller W.B., & Desteno D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science. PMID: 23965376