A meta-study that examines research on the purported link between meditation practice and selfless behavior finds most of it is deeply flawed.
"The popularization of meditation techniques in a secular format is offering the hope of a better self, and a better world, to many," write Ute Kreplin of Massey University in New Zealand and Miguel Farias and Inti Brazil of Coventry University in England.
"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."
For this first-ever review of the scientific literature on mediation and pro-social behavior, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers scoured databases for relevant research.
They focused exclusively on randomized controlled trials—widely considered the gold standard of medical research—and found 22, with a combined total of 1,685 participants. All defined meditation as "a form of focused attention;" most were published between 2010 and 2015.
The researchers report that, adding up the results of all the studies, meditation practice was linked to "a moderate increase" in positive, helpful behavior. But that positive finding got shakier and shakier as they delved into the details.
"Meditation interventions had an effect on the categories of compassion and empathy," they found, "but not on aggression, connectedness, or prejudice."
Worse, "a significant increase in compassion only occurred if the intervention teacher was a co-author of the published study," they write.
"This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results," Farias said in announcing the findings.
He pointed to other problems as well, noting that "Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation." All in all, the methodological quality of 61 percent of the studies was rated "weak."
Research in this field—not to mention the reporting of its results—"generally conveys the impression that Buddhism is particularly concerned with the promotion of pro-sociality, and that meditation is the means to achieve it," the researchers write.
But "leading academics of South Asian religions" argue that, "for most forms of Buddhism, it is not meditation, but the study of sacred scriptures that is the most valued means to achieve deep personal transformation." Meditation, in other words, is being oversold, based in part on shaky research.
While these results may be disappointing, they confirm what fans of The Good Place get reminded on a weekly basis: Becoming a better person is hard work. Meditation may help, but don't count on it to do the heavy lifting.