Loving-Kindness Meditation Increases Social Connectedness
Cendri A. Hutcherson, Emma M. Seppala, and James J. Gross
The need for social connection is a fundamental human motive, and it is increasingly clear that feeling
socially connected confers mental and physical health benefits. However, in many cultures, societal
changes are leading to growing social distrust and alienation. Can feelings of social connection and
positivity toward others be increased? Is it possible to self-generate these feelings? In this study, the
authors used a brief loving-kindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be
created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control
task, even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and
positivity toward novel individuals on both explicit and implicit levels. These results suggest that this
easily implemented technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation.
Keywords: meditation, compassion, prosocial emotion, emotion regulation, implicit affect
As a species whose survival depends on the ability to build
mutually beneficial relationships with others (Brewer, 2004), hu-
man beings have a deep-seated need to feel connected, to be
trusted and loved, and to trust and love in return (Baumeister &
Leary, 1995). Feeling connected to others increases psychological
and physical well-being (Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith, 2003;
De Vries, Glasper, & Detillion, 2003; Lee & Robbins, 1998) and
decreases the risk of depression and physical ailments (Hawkley,
Masi, Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006). A sense of connectedness also
increases empathetic responding (Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, &
Neuberg, 1997) as well as acts of trust and cooperation (Glaeser,
Laibson, Scheinkman, & Soutter, 2000), which tend to have mu-
tually reinforcing effects: they beget trust and cooperation in return
(Fehr & Rochenbach, 2003).
Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits that feelings of social
connectedness confer, our society is becoming increasingly iso-
lated and distrustful: technological, economic, and social changes
have resulted in smaller social networks (McPherson, Smith-
Lovin, & Brashears, 2006), as well as an erosion of basic confi-
dence in the trustworthiness of others (Rahn & Transue, 1998).
These observations imply a worrisome predicament: increases in
social isolation and mistrust of those outside one’s already estab-
lished social networks may prevent the very signals of cooperation
and liking necessary to evoke social connectedness and trusting
behavior, leading to a downward spiral in social connectedness and
support that is difficult to counteract.
This dilemma is compounded by the apparent difficulty of
changing these patterns of affective response. Indeed, research has
highlighted the rapid, inflexible nature of automatic habits of
response toward others (Bargh, 1999). These automatic, implicit
responses appear resistant to change even in the face of new or
contradictory evidence (Gregg, Seibt, & Banaji, 2006), and their
effects on behavior can often be difficult to consciously detect or
control (Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000).
How can we increase feelings of connection at an automatic
level, most crucially toward those individuals not yet within our
circle of trust? A growing psychological literature has focused on
decreasing antisocial behaviors or implicit prejudice. These inter-
ventions typically involve efforts to raise awareness about the
negative consequences of such prejudice (e.g., Rudman, Ashmore,
& Gary, 2001), or exposure to individuals from the disliked,
stereotyped group toward whom one holds a positive attitude
(Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001). However, Western science has
only recently begun to recognize the benefit not just of counter-
acting negative, antisocial emotion, but also of fostering positive
prosocial emotions and behaviors. Even when highlighting the
important role of positivity in counteracting implicit negativity,
most studies leave unanswered the question of how to generate
such positivity in the first place.
Promoting a prosocial orientation has long been at the core of
some Eastern philosophies, however. In particular, Buddhist tra-
ditions have emphasized the importance of cultivating connection
and love toward others through techniques such as loving-kindness
meditation (LKM). This practice, in which one directs compassion
and wishes for well-being toward real or imagined others, is
designed to create changes in emotion, motivation, and behavior in
order to promote positive feelings and kindness toward the self and
others (Salzberg, 1995).
Unfortunately, little empirical research has been done on LKM
(Wallace, 2006), and the nature and extent of its effects remains
largely unknown. Can a simple meditative practice really create
positive feelings even toward strangers, on an implicit as well as
explicit level? If so, how far-reaching are these effects? Do they
extend only to specific targets of meditation, or can they generalize
In the present study, we investigated the efficacy of a short,
guided loving-kindness visualization to increase positivity and
Cendri A. Hutcherson, Emma M. Seppala, and James J. Gross, Depart-
ment of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California.
This research was funded by a grant from the Mind and Life Institute.
We are also grateful to Maryliz McCurdy, Rika Onizuka, and Sandra Roth
for assistance in data collection.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James J.
Gross, Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Bldg. 420, Stanford, CA
94305-2130. E-mail: gross@ stanford.edu
2008, Vol. 8, No. 5, 720–724
Copyright 2008 by the American Psychological Association
social connectedness toward others. We assessed several different
predicted effects of LKM, including changes in mood, explicit
evaluations of the self and others, and, most critically, implicit
evaluations of the self and others. We also determined the extent
to which changes in mood were related to changes in evaluation of
self and others.
A total of 93 participants (57% female; mean age ? 23.6 years,
range ? 18–40; 46% Caucasian, 27% Southeast Asian, 14%
Asian or Asian American, 5% Latino/Hispanic, 3% Black, 5%
other) volunteered for this study. Because extensive experience in
meditation has been shown to alter neural structure, and may affect
baseline responding (Lazar et al., 2005), participants were ex-
cluded if they reported meditating for more than 30 minutes/day.
Average meditative practice of participants included in the study
was less than 1.7 hours per month. Of participants who reported
meditating, only eight reported practicing some version of LKM,
and results are unchanged if these participants are excluded from
To assess the affective impact of LKM, we examined its effects
on positive and negative mood. To assess the impact of LKM on
affective responses to the self and others, we measured partici-
pants’ explicit and implicit evaluative responses to photographs of
themselves, a close other,1as well as three neutral strangers,
matched to the participant’s gender, age, and ethnicity,2before and
after a guided visualization directed toward a photograph of one of
the neutral strangers. To control for nonspecific effects of medi-
tation on general (nonsocial) emotional responding, we also as-
sessed responses to a nonsocial object (a lamp). All photos were
edited to appear against a gray background.
Following baseline assessment of explicit and implicit responses
to the six photographs, as well as mood, participants were ran-
domly assigned to complete either a guided loving-kindness med-
itation (LKM) or neutral imagery induction (IMAGERY). Instruc-
tions were presented over speakers, and lasted about seven
minutes. All participants began with the instruction to close their
eyes, relax, and take deep breaths.
In the LKM condition (n ? 45), this was followed by instruc-
tions to imagine two loved ones standing to either side of the
participant and sending their love. After four minutes, participants
were told to open their eyes and redirect these feelings of love and
compassion toward the photograph of a neutral stranger appearing
in the center of the screen. Participants repeated a series of phrases
designed to bring attention to the other, and to wish them health,
happiness, and well-being.
In the IMAGERY condition (n ? 48), which was designed to be
as structurally similar as possible to the LKM instructions while
remaining affectively neutral, participants first imagined two ac-
quaintances that they did not know very well and for whom they
did not have strong feelings standing to either side of them.
Participants were instructed to focus on each acquaintance’s phys-
ical appearance. After 4 minutes, the participants were told to open
their eyes, look at a photograph of a neutral stranger, focus their
attention on the visual details of the stranger’s face (e.g., shape of
the eyebrows) and imagine details of the stranger’s appearance
(e.g., what clothes they might be wearing).
For both groups, a second set of explicit and implicit evaluation
measures and mood probes followed the 7-min visualization pro-
cedure. Finally, participants completed a set of demographic ques-
tionnaires, were thanked, debriefed, and paid.
ulation, and to examine whether it mediated changes in explicit or
implicit evaluations of others, participants indicated their current
mood. Positive (calm, happy, loving) and negative (angry, anxious,
unhappy) terms were averaged to create separate positive (? ?
.68) and negative (? ? .67) mood composites.
Explicit evaluative responses.
indicated how connected, similar, and positive they felt toward
the subject on a seven-point Likert scale. An explicit positive
evaluation composite was created using these responses (aver-
age ? ? .82).
Implicit evaluative responses.
each picture, we used an affective priming task developed by
Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, and Kardes (1986). On each trial, a
fixation appeared for 2 s. One of the photographs then appeared for
315 ms, followed by a 135-ms fixation. Each face was presented
18 times in random order, followed once each by nine positive
words (e.g., brilliant, loyal) and nine negative words (e.g., cruel,
immoral). Each word appeared for 1,750 ms. Participants were
instructed to judge as quickly and accurately as possible whether
the word was positive or negative. Implicit evaluations were de-
termined by taking the difference between the average response
time to positive and negative words following a particular prime.
An implicit positive response manifests as a bias to respond faster
to positive words, and slower to negative words, after the prime.
Data from six participants who failed to respond or responded
incorrectly on ?20% of trials were excluded.
To assess changes in affect accompanying the manip-
For each picture, participants
To assess implicit responses to
To test whether LKM had mood effects compared to IMAG-
ERY, we conducted separate 2 (group) ? 2 (time) analyses of
variance (ANOVAs) on positive and negative mood. We observed
a significant Group ? Time interaction for positive mood, F(1,
82) ? 11.17, p ? .001, prep? .99, ?p
interaction for negative mood, F(1, 82) ? 3.46, p ? .07, prep?
positive, Mpre? 4.82, Mpost? 5.55, t(38) ? 5.03, p ? .001, prep?
.99, d? ? .77, and less negative, Mpre? 2.46, Mpost? 1.91,
2? .12, and a marginal
2? .04. Participants in the LKM group became more
1Participants provided a full frontal digital photograph of an age- and
gender-matched close other prior to the laboratory session. A photograph
was taken of the participant in the lab, just prior to the experimental task.
2Photographs of faces were obtained from an online face database
developed by Minear and Park (2004).
t(38) ? 4.31, p ? .001, prep? .99, d? ? .60 following meditation.
Mood did not significantly change in the IMAGERY group.
Explicit Evaluative Responses
To test whether LKM had effects on explicit positivity (com-
pared with IMAGERY), we conducted a 6 (photo: self, close,
visualization target, neutral 1, neutral 2, object) ? 2 (time: base-
line, postvisualization) ? 2 (group: LKM, IMAGERY) repeated-
measures ANOVA on the explicit evaluation composite. We pre-
dicted and observed a significant three-way interaction between
photo, time, and group, F(5, 87) ? 2.42, p ? .04, prep? .90, ?p
.03. Decomposition of this effect indicated that both groups be-
came more positive toward the target after the visualization, LKM:
t(44) ? 5.42, p ? .001, prep? .99, d? ? .89; IMAGERY: t(47) ?
2.27, p ? .03, prep? .91, d? ? .24; however, this effect was
stronger in the LKM group, F(1, 91) ? 5.80, p ? .02, prep? .99,
icantly more positive toward the nontarget neutral strangers (both
ts ? 3.3, both ps ? .002) and toward the object (p ? .01) (see
Table 1). Although this latter finding indicates that the effects we
observed arise from a generalized shift toward positive responding,
responses to self and close other did not change; moreover, effects
of LKM for each neutral face remained significant after controlling
for change in positivity toward the object (all ps ? .01).
To determine whether mood changes accounted for changes in
explicit positivity, we performed a mediation analysis using group
status and change in positivity as the independent and dependent
variables, and mood change as the mediator. Change in positive
mood (but not negative mood) significantly correlated with change
in positivity toward the target (r ? .39, p ? .001), and average
evaluations across the two nontarget strangers (r ? .33, p ? .003).
Furthermore, the results of a Sobel z test (Sobel, 1982) indicated
that change in mood partially mediated the difference between the
LKM and IMAGERY groups for the target (z ? 2.19, p ? .03),
and nontargets (z ? 1.74, p ? .08), although it did not mediate
change in positivity toward the object (z ? 1.24, p ? .22).
Controlling for mood, the effect of group status on explicit posi-
tivity was only marginally significant for the target (p ? .09), but
remained significant, albeit at a reduced level, for the nontarget
strangers (p ? .005). Change in mood explained 10% of the
2? .03. Furthermore, only the LKM group also became signif-
change in positivity toward the target, and 5% of change toward
the nontarget strangers.
Implicit Evaluative Responses
To test whether LKM had effects on implicit positive evalua-
tions (compared to IMAGERY), we conducted a 6 (face) ? 2
(time) ? 2 (group) repeated-measures ANOVA on the implicit
positive evaluation measure. We predicted and observed a signif-
icant 3-way interaction between photo, time, and group, F(5,
81) ? 2.31, p ? .04, prep? .89, ?p
measures conducted separately for each face indicated that there
were significant group ? time interactions for only two faces: the
target of visualization, F(1, 85) ? 5.80, p ? .02, prep? .93, ?p
.06, and the self, F(1, 85) ? 5.47, p ? .02, prep? .93, ?p
Participants became significantly more positive toward the target
after LKM, t(41) ? 2.39, p ? .02, prep? .93, d? ? .36, but did not
change after neutral imagery, t(44) ? 1.04, p ? .3; see Table 2. A
group ? time interaction also achieved significance for the self;
however, paired t tests comparing changes within each group fell
just short of significance. Participants became marginally more
positive toward the self, t(41) ? 1.56, p ? .12, prep? .80, d? ? .22
after LKM, but marginally more negative after IMAGERY,
t(41) ? 1.56, p ? .09, prep? .83, d? ? .24. Implicit positivity
toward nontarget neutral strangers did not change significantly
(both ps ? .25). No changes were observed in positivity toward the
close other or the object, and the increase in positivity seen toward
the target in the LKM group remained significant after controlling
for changes in positivity either toward the object or the two
nontarget neutral faces (all ps ? .05).
To determine whether mood changes accounted for changes in
implicit positivity in a manner similar to explicit positivity, we
examined whether mood mediated the effect of group on changes
in implicit positivity. However, neither positive nor negative mood
change correlated with implicit evaluations, and Sobel tests indi-
cated that mood did not mediate the effects of meditation on
implicit responses (z ? .82, p ? .41). Furthermore, the three-way
interaction between face, time and group in a repeated measures
ANOVA of affective priming remained significant after control-
ling for change in positive and negative mood (p ? .02).3Mood
accounted for ?1% of the change in implicit positivity for both the
target and neutral strangers. Thus, although changes in mood
accompanying meditation appeared to mediate changes in explicit
positivity toward others, they did not account for changes in
2? .03. Follow-up repeated
The benefits of identifying techniques for increasing social
connection and positivity are increasingly apparent in the face of
rising societal isolation and distrust. Yet while it is easy to espouse
high-minded ideals of love and harmony with all individuals, it is
often quite difficult to implement them. The process of impression
formation can proceed spontaneously and without conscious effort
(Todorov & Uleman, 2003), and in situations of cognitive load, for
example, resources may not be available to monitor and control the
3Results were comparable when controlling for raw mood measures.
Change in Explicit Evaluative Responses After Loving-Kindness
Meditation (LKM) or Neutral Imagery Induction (IMAGERY)
(n ? 45)
(n ? 48)
which were assessed by using a 7-point Likert scale.
?p ? .05.
Presents change pre- to postmanipulation in explicit evaluations,
??p ? .005.
expression of more automatic evaluative responses (Van Knippen-
berg, Dijksterhuis, & Vermeulen, 1999). Furthermore, although
external, stimulus-driven cues (such as category membership or
descriptions of a person’s moral behavior) can quickly create
implicit evaluations (Castelli, Zogmaister, Smith, & Arcuri, 2004),
it is less clear that automatic affective responses can be as easily
manufactured through top-down, intentionally controlled pro-
cesses. Can conscious efforts to achieve socially harmonious mo-
tivations create real, automatic affective responses?
The present study demonstrated significant effects of loving-
kindness meditation on both explicit and implicit positivity toward
neutral strangers. Even a brief (7-min) exercise in cultivating
positive regard was sufficient to induce changes of small to mod-
erate effect size. These results were observed in comparison to a
tightly matched neutral imagery task that controlled for effects of
exposure, relaxation, and cognitive activity. On an explicit level,
LKM had both general and specific effects, increasing positivity
significantly not only toward its target, but also toward other strang-
pronounced for its target, with little or no impact on responses toward
nontarget neutral strangers. Some changes in implicit positivity were
also observed toward the self, a finding in keeping with one of the
goals of LKM, to become more accepting of the self. Changes in
mood mediated effects on explicit evaluations, but neither mood nor
explicit evaluations accounted for the implicit effects.
The convergence and divergence of the effects of LKM on
explicit and implicit responding raise a number of interesting
questions, and suggest several avenues for future research. One
particularly interesting question concerns the ways in which ex-
plicit or implicit effects of LKM relate to social behavior. Implicit
measures such as the Implicit Association Test or the affective
priming task used in this study may be more difficult to con-
sciously manipulate than explicit reports (Kim, 2003). Moreover,
explicit attitudes often predict controlled behavior while implicit
measures predict spontaneous, nonverbal behavior (e.g., Dovidio,
Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). Future research will be needed to
determine whether the implicit positivity that we observed in this
study is more strongly tied to pro-social behavior than explicit
reports, or predicts behavior under conditions of cognitive load.
The results of our study provide the first evidence that LKM can
impact responding at an automatic level, but raise important ques-
tions concerning mechanism. Of particular importance will be to
determine the active ingredients that made our manipulation suc-
cessful, particularly at the implicit level. LKM may be viewed as
a single instantiation of a family of internally generated, con-
sciously controlled techniques for regulating emotion and motiva-
tion (Gross, 1998), and was associated with large changes in mood
and affect. However, simple explicitly reported mood changes did
not account for increases in implicit positivity. Future work will
thus be needed to develop a more detailed understanding of the
critical emotional and cognitive factors mediating the effects of
meditation on implicit evaluations. Are the implicit effects we
observed primarily driven by particular affective or physiological
changes induced by the meditation, or are they driven more by the
repetition of particular thoughts during the procedure?
Although we used a control condition that matched LKM for
many low-level features, such as simply viewing a person’s face,
there are also many ways in which the two procedures may have
differed. LKM may have recruited processes of verbal elaboration,
perspective taking, and emotional or physiological arousal that
may have contributed either separately or in combination to the
explicit and implicit effects we observed. One way to tease apart
the contribution of these different ingredients will involve inves-
tigating the efficacy of simpler methods containing single elements
of the LKM procedure. For example, would simple perspective
taking or individuation (e.g., Wheeler & Fiske, 2005) be enough to
induce the implicit positivity observed as a result of LKM? Would
externally produced positive mood induction be equally effective,
or do effects depend on the type of emotion induced (e.g., pride vs.
Another set of questions arises when comparing our manipula-
tion to loving-kindness meditation as it is typically practiced.
Often, the focus in LKM is on expanding compassion and care to
larger social groups, or even to disliked others. In our study we
required participants to focus on a single, neutral individual. We
observed generalization to other, nontarget individuals at an ex-
plicit level, but these effects did not translate as strongly to implicit
evaluations. Whether a meditative practice with a more expansive
focus, in which people focus not on a single individual but delib-
erately attempt to evoke compassion for larger numbers of people,
can have effects on implicit positivity remains an open question.
Can love or concern be fostered in a way that extends to others
who have not been the direct focus of the meditation? Can it be
used not just to induce positive emotion toward neutral strangers,
but to counteract the automatic negative feelings engendered by
disliked others, such as competitors or people with whom one has
had difficult or upsetting interactions? In our study, participants
focused on a person of the same gender and race, making the target
of meditation fairly similar. Would meditation be as effective if it
were focused on out-group members? How does it compare in
effectiveness to other techniques for reducing explicit or implicit
negative attitudes (e.g., Rudman et al., 2001)?
A final set of questions concerns the durability and real-world
consequences of these effects. A small but growing literature
suggests that other types of meditation may have important ben-
efits for mental well-being and immune function (Davidson et al.,
2003). Does LKM have similar effects? Can it impact real-life
decision-making behavior, or have effects that endure beyond a
single laboratory session? One outcome of continued meditative
practice may be to transform the transient affective changes that
occur during and shortly after meditation into longer lasting, more
Change in Implicit Evaluative Responses After Loving-Kindness
Meditation (LKM) or Neutral Imagery Induction (IMAGERY)
LKM (n ? 42)IMAGERY (n ? 45)
M SEM SE
ations, which were measured as response time bias in milliseconds.
?p ? .05.
Table presents change pre- to postmanipulation in implicit evalu-
habitual patterns of responding (Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Download full-text
Schaefer, Levinson, & Davidson, 2007; Cahn & Polich, 2006), but
it is not yet known whether practiced loving-kindness meditators
would show more long-lasting or stronger effects. We believe that
questions such as these will guide the development of effective
interventions to increase a more deeply rooted sense of connection,
compassion, and concern for others in our daily lives.
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Received October 22, 2007
Revision received May 19, 2008
Accepted May 19, 2008 ?