If you prefer to think well of humanity, I’d advise you not to read the rest of this post.

David DeSteno is a psychologist who practices and teaches meditation, and believes that it promotes compassion. To test this belief, he set up an experiment:

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

When a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

The really salient point here, it seems to me, is that when faced with a person on crutches and in obvious pain, eighty-four percent of your average Joes placidly kept their seats rather than give the person some relief. Meditate on that for a while.

This is just a short newspaper op-ed and doesn’t go into much detail, but I wish DeSteno had said something about the content of the training in meditation that the subjects in this experiment received. What were they taught to do? Was the heightening of compassion presented to them as a goal of the training? If so, how was it presented?

That’s an important point, because if the meditation instructors commended compassion to their students, then that very commendation may have had a role in shaping their responses to suffering — possibly a greater role than the meditation itself. Maybe it was not meditation that did the trick but a simple reminder that it’s good to be thoughtful and kind to others. I’d like to know more about all this, because anything that lowers the shockingly high percentage of selfish jerks would be socially useful.