There is something strange with most studies on the effects of meditation

Yesterday I found out about this new review study and meta-analysis on meditation via a tweet by Neuroskeptic. What did the researchers find? Well, read on…

First the good news:

Despite these high hopes, our analysis suggests that meditating is likely to have a positive, but still relatively limited effect in making individuals feel or act in a substantially more socially connected, or less aggressive and prejudiced way. Compared to doing no new emotionally engaging activity, it might make one feel moderately more compassionate or empathic…

Well, that’s not that bad, there is an effect but it’s moderate.

But there is more:

…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.

To make it more concrete:

…compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

The researchers aren’t saying there isn’t an effect, what they are saying is:

…the adaptation of spiritual practices into the lab suffers from methodological weaknesses and is partly immersed in theoretical mist. Before good research can be conducted on the prosocial effects of meditation, these problems need to be addressed.

Abstract of the report:

Many individuals believe that meditation has the capacity to not only alleviate mental-illness but to improve prosociality. This article systematically reviewed and meta-analysed the effects of meditation interventions on prosociality in randomized controlled trials of healthy adults. Five types of social behaviours were identified: compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice. Although we found a moderate increase in prosociality following meditation, further analysis indicated that this effect was qualified by two factors: type of prosociality and methodological quality. Meditation interventions had an effect on compassion and empathy, but not on aggression, connectedness or prejudice. We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one. Contrary to popular beliefs that meditation will lead to prosocial changes, the results of this meta-analysis showed that the effects of meditation on prosociality were qualified by the type of prosociality and methodological quality of the study. We conclude by highlighting a number of biases and theoretical problems that need addressing to improve quality of research in this area.

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Filed under Psychology, Research, Review

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