Promoting Altruism Through Meditation: An 8-Week
Randomized Controlled Pilot Study
Erik Wallmark &Kousha Safarzadeh &
Daiva Daukantaitė&Rachel E. Maddux
#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
Abstract The purpose of this study was to investigate the
effects of a Buddhist meditation intervention on empathy,
perceived stress, mindfulness, self-compassion, and of par-
ticular interest, the dispositional tendency to feel empathic
concern rather than personal distress when perceiving an-
other as in need, termed altruistic orientation. Participants
were randomly assigned to an intervention group (n020) or
a waiting list control group (n022). Results indicated a trend
towards increases in altruistic orientation in the intervention
group—an increase that significantly correlated with medi-
tation time, decreases in perceived stress, and increases in
self-compassion and mindfulness. Additionally, compared
to the controls, significant increases in mindfulness and self-
compassion and a significant decrease in perceived stress
were obtained for the intervention group.
Keywords Empathy .Altruism .Stress .Mindfulness .
A wide range of experiments have shown that the capacity for
compassion and altruism exists in humans (Batson 2011), and it
has also been observed in nonhuman primates (de Waal 2008).
Altruism is defined as “a motivational state with the ultimate
goal of increasing another’s welfare”(Batson and Shaw 1991)
and is linked to several beneficial interpersonal outcomes, such
as decreased aggression (Harmon-Jones et al. 2004; Miller and
Eisenberg 1988), improved attitudes towards stigmatized
groups (Batson et al. 1997), and enhanced social closeness
and decreased loneliness (Crocker and Carnevello 2008), and
to an increased tendency to give during a “prisoner’s dilemma”
when the other already has defected (Batson and Ahmad 2001).
Because altruism has been shown to be associated with
promising interpersonal benefits (for review, see Batson
2011), we argue that psychological interventions targeting
such an ability are a worthy scientific goal. In this pilot
study, we explore whether an intervention based on the
Buddhist meditations of loving-kindness, compassion, em-
pathic joy, and equanimity (i.e., the four immeasurables), as
well as the practice of Tonglen, can develop the disposition-
al tendency to respond altruistically.
One of the well-established antecedents to altruistic mo-
tivation is empathic concern (EC) (Batson and Shaw 1991;
Piliavin and Charng 1990; Schroeder et al. 1988). It is
defined as “an other-oriented emotion elicited by and con-
gruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need”
(Batson 2011,p. 11) or “feelings of warmth, compassion,
and sympathy that an observer has for an unfortunate other”
(Davis 1983, p. 167)—definitions that closely overlap with
the terms compassion (Goetz et al. 2010)andsympathy
(Eiseberg and Eggum 2011). When a valued other is per-
ceived to be in need, EC is elicited, bringing forth a moti-
vational force aimed at reducing the perceived discrepancy
between the actual state and the valued state of the other.
This motivation to bring another to the valued appetitive
state is termed “altruistic motivation”(Batson 2011).
EC is not to be conflated with the broader term empathy
(Decety 2011). Whereas EC is an other-oriented response
which entails feeling for the other (Batson 2011), empathy is
most commonly defined as an automatic response stemming
from the perception of an other’s emotional state (Preston
and de Waal 2002), which is similar to what the other person
is feeling (Eisenberg and Eggum 2011).
Prior research shows that empathic arousal occurs when
another is perceived to be in an aversive emotional situation
E. Wallmark :K. Safarzadeh :D. Daukantaitė(*):R. E. Maddux
Department of Psychology, Lund University,
P.O. Box 213, 221 00 Lund, Sweden
(Bandura and Rosenthal 1966; Berger 1962). The arousal,
however, is not in itself a sufficient basis for engaging in
altruistic motivated behavior, but it may evolve into EC,
personal distress (PD), or both (Eisenberg and Eggum 2011;
Piliavin and Charng 1990). Emotion regulation is under-
stood to be crucial for regulating and adapting the empathic
response (Decety 2011) and preventing overarousal (associ-
ated with PD) (Eisenberg and Fabes 1992). Whereas EC is
related to feelings of compassion, tenderness, and warmth
felt for the other, PD is related to feelings of being alarmed,
disturbed, and upset (Batson et al. 1987; Davis 1983).
It has also been shown that EC and PD exhibit distinct
motivational consequences: EC promotes altruistic respond-
ing, whereas PD promotes self-focused efforts and allevia-
tion of one’s own distress rather than that of the other
(Batson et al. 1987; Batson and Shaw 1991; Eisenberg et
al. 1989; Piliavin and Charng 1990; Schroeder et al. 1988).
Although EC and PD are two distinct emotional states with
different motives, they have been shown to correlate mod-
erately (r00.52), as measured by the Interpersonal Reactiv-
ity Index (IRI; Davis 1983). Individuals experiencing high
general levels of emotional reactivity may be prone to both
high levels of PD and EC (Davis 1994). It is plausible,
however, that a high dispositional level of EC paired with
alow level of PD constitutes a specific altruistic disposition
in contrast to being generally emotionally reactive. Measur-
ing the difference between the two (EC minus PD) is a
complementary approach which can tap the dispositional
tendency to act altruistically as opposed to (1) merely being
emotionally aroused or (2) engaging in self-focused efforts
aimed at alleviating PD. This measured discrepancy (EC
minus PD) is further referred to as “altruistic orientation.”
Another important factor related to altruistic motivation
is perspective taking (PT), defined as the ability to adopt the
perspective of the other (Davis 1983). PT is thought to be
associated with mental flexibility and cognitive top-down
regulation of the default egocentric perspective (Decety and
Jackson 2004). Adopting the perspective of another has
been widely and successfully used to induce EC in labora-
tory settings from the classical experiment by Stotland
(1969) and onwards and is understood to be an important
way for coming to value other’s thoughts and emotions
(Batson 2011). PT has indeed been pinpointed as an effec-
tive strategy for reducing stereotyping and prejudice (Batson
and Ahmad 2009) that seems to facilitate greater social
connectedness and prevents perceived differences between
the self and the out-group (Galinsky and Moskowitz 2000).
The use of mental imagery for putting oneself in the place
of another has recently been highlighted as an effective way
to cultivate altruism (Decety and Lamm 2011). By integrat-
ing motivation, attention, cognitive, and emotional aspects
(Wallace and Shapiro 2006), meditation may offer a method
by which such imagery can be utilized. Mindfulness-based
interventions are mainly understood to target attention and
emotional awareness and seem to be a valid approach for
promoting empathy (Shapiro and Izett 2008). However, we
argue that the four immeasurables which builds on mindful-
ness, but also involving an active affective/motivational
engagement with an imagined other, is a more powerful
and suitable method for developing EC and altruistic
The four immeasurables, also called the brahma viharas
(Buddhagosa 1975), which consist of (1) loving-kindness
(pali: metta), (2) compassion (karuna), (3) empathetic joy
(mudita), and (4) equanimity (upekkha), are drawn from the
Buddhist tradition. The first three (loving-kindness, com-
passion, and empathetic joy) are altruistic motivations ap-
plicable to contextual valence (baseline, aversive, and
appetitive) in which another is perceived to be, and the
fourth (equanimity) is concerned with valuing the other in
his or her own right. Equanimity is aimed at reducing biases
that hinder altruism, and it involves the wish that we may let
go of liking, disliking, and indifference towards others so
that our altruistic motivation may become unbiased and
truly immeasurable (Patrul Rinpoche 1994).
The approach here is adopted from Chödron (2009) and
McLeod (2001) and consists of (1) stabilizing attention by
noticing the inflow and outflow of the breath for a period of
time, followed by (2) imagining a valued other in a valenced
condition (baseline, aversive, or appetitive) in front of
oneself, (3) directing the corresponding altruistic motivation
(e.g., compassion when the other is perceived in an aversive
state) to the other, (4) practicing in a continuous moment-to-
moment awareness of sensations/emotions correlated with
directing such motivation, and (5) gradually expanding the
practice by moving onwards from the highly valued other to
a less and less valued other, maintaining the heartfelt altru-
istic motivation. A more detailed description regarding the
intervention can be found in Safarzadeh and Wallmark
Mindfulness training promotes flexible emotion regula-
tion (Chambers et al. 2009), such as an enhanced ability to
regulate the empathic response and the default self-
perspective (Decety and Jackson 2004). This potentially
increases the tendency to experience EC rather than PD
(Eisenberg and Eggum 2011) as well as adopt the perspec-
tive of the other (Decety 2011). Greater flexibility may
consequently make way for valuing the other’s welfare in
his or her own right, rather than based on personal prefer-
ences of what the other may bring to the self (Batson 2011).
Even though studies investigating the effects of the four
immeasurables are few, interest in the field is rapidly growing
(Hofmann et al. 2011). In a recent experiment by Hutcherson
et al. (2008), participants were instructed to first imagine
two loved ones standing beside one’s self, directing love
to them by repeating words that bear the motivation of
loving-kindness. After 4 min, they were instructed to
redirect and maintain loving-kindness towards a photo-
graph of a neutral stranger. Results showed that just a
total of 7 min of loving-kindness meditation done by
the meditation-naïve participants significantly altered the
social evaluative judgments for the neutral stranger on
both implicit and explicit measures. This was further-
more generalized to other neutral strangers (not included
in the meditation), but only on explicit levels. The
procedure, in which one begins where the aspirations
arise more naturally, followed by a gradual expansion,
breaking down the barriers of learned preferences, is in
line with how the practice is traditionally used (Wallace
Altering of emotional experiences through training in the
four immeasurables has been specifically investigated by
Fredrickson et al. (2008). In this study, participants under-
went an 8-week loving-kindness meditation program in-
volving a daily assessment of time spent meditating as
well as measures of positive and negative emotions. Results
showed an increase in daily experience of positive emotions
after completing the study—changes that in turn were relat-
ed to increases in mindful attention, self-acceptance, posi-
tive relations with others, and a good physical health. These
changes were linked to increased satisfaction with life and
reduced depressive symptoms.
In addition to the four immeasurables discussed above,
the practice of Tonglen or “sending and taking”(Kyabgon
2007), traditionally included in the larger framework of
Lojong “the seven-point mind training”(Chödron 1994), is
considered a main practice aimed for the development of
altruism (Dalai Lama and Cutler 1998). In Tonglen, one
simultaneously combines the four immeasurables with
mindfulness of breathing in one single method (McLeod
2001). By reducing our habitual tendencies to respond with
aversion to other’s distress and cling to our own happiness,
Tonglen is regarded as promoting a radical shift in how we
relate to experience, promoting altruism and insight (Chödron
To date there are no studies known to the authors inves-
tigating the effects of Tonglen. Pace et al. (2009), however,
examined the effects of compassion meditation drawn from
the practice of Lojong, but only in the context of altered
stress responses and not related empathy or altruism. The 6-
week program they adopted showed no reductions in stress
response (as measured by plasma cortisol or interleukin-6
concentration) between meditation and control groups, but
significant correlations were obtained between meditation
practice time and reduced stress levels.
The primary purpose of this randomized controlled pilot
study is to investigate the effects of this intervention on the
dispositional tendency to feel EC rather than PD when
perceiving another as in need, named altruistic orientation.
A secondary purpose is to further examine the effects of the
intervention on mindfulness, self-compassion, and per-
ceived stress, factors thought to affect levels of empathic
accuracy and concern for others’well-being (Shapiro and
Based on previous studies, we expected that the interven-
tion group (1) would increase their dispositional tendency to
feel EC rather than PD as compared to controls, indicating
an increased altruistic orientationfromengaginginthe
program, and (2) would exhibit an increased tendency to
adopt the perspective of others as compared to the controls,
demonstrating an increased valuing of the other’s
In line with prior research indicating differences between
meditators and non-meditators in emotion regulation ten-
dencies, such as decreased stress levels (Davidson et al.
2003), self-compassion (Neff 2003), and mindfulness
(Chambers et al. 2009;Ortner et al. 2007), we expected
(3) significant changes on these measures among those
who completed the 8-week program as compared to those
in the control condition and that (4) the amount of time
participants spent practicing meditation during the 8 weeks
would correlate with increases in EC and PT, mindfulness
and self-compassion, as well as decreases in perceived stress
Data for 42 participants were analyzed: 22 in the control
group and 20 in the intervention group. The mean age of
participants was 33.8 (intervention group: M032, SD 011,
range022–57; control group: M035, SD 015, range 022–
69). In both groups, 86 % of the participants were women
and the majority of the participants were well-educated (i.e.,
bachelor/master’s degree). No significant differences were
found between groups on demographic variables.
Participants were recruited from nonprofit organizations,
a nearby sports center, and in the vicinity of Lund Univer-
sity in Sweden. The study was marketed as “an opportunity
to learn meditation, get greater balance and harmony in
everyday life”and referred to as “an introduction course in
meditation”without mentioning keywords such as “empa-
thy”or “altruism.”Individuals who registered for the study
(n0105) were subsequently screened for inclusion (see
Fig. 1flow diagram). This involved questions about drug
and alcohol habits and whether applicants could participate
during the intended period, spending approximately 30 min
meditating per day.
Selected items from the Clinical Outcomes in Routine
Evaluation (Evans et al. 2002) scale (0–3 scale) were used to
gauge mental distress and/or somatic illness and pain.
Applicants were disqualified for a rating of 3 (almost all
the time) on items assessing generalized anxiety, panic
anxiety, depression, and/or somatic illness/pain. For suicidal
thoughts, self-injury, and positive psychotic symptoms,
applicants were disqualified for a rating of 2 (sometimes)
or above. Illicit drug use in the last 6 months was also
exclusionary. Applicants were furthermore excluded if they
had any prior meditation experience or more than 2 years of
continuous practice of yoga, Tai Chi, or Qigong.
Design and Procedure
We conducted a randomized controlled experiment. The
intervention was conducted one evening a week for 8 weeks,
and it consisted of nine group sessions in a picturesque
medieval meditation hall at the Swedish Church in Lund,
Sweden. Due to practical factors, such as a lack of physical
space, the meditators (n020) were divided into two smaller
groups (n010 and 10) and two meditation sessions were
conducted in successive order during the evenings.
Due to an overrepresentation of female applicants, par-
ticipants were stratified by gender and randomly assigned to
either the intervention or control group using the web-based
tool Research Randomizer (Urbaniak and Plous 2011). Par-
ticipants in the control condition were placed on a waiting
list, receiving the same program after the study.
included (a) 30 min of lecture focused on the week’s topic,
(b) 10 min of mindful movements, (c) 20 min of meditation
on the week’s immeasurable, and (d) 15 min for question
and answer. Each session began (with the exception of
Fig. 1 Flowchart of
participants through each stage
of the study
sessions 1 and 9) with 5 min of “mindfulness of breathing”
meditation and concluded with weekly homework assign-
ments relating to the topic of the week (see Table 1). Home-
work assignments were designed to help participants
incorporate the formal sitting meditation practice into ev-
All participants also received a handout at the end of each
session summarizing the content. Participants also received
an audio CD with guided meditations and were instructed to
follow the CD for their meditation practice two or three
times before doing them on their own.
The guided meditation of session 1 was based on the
vipassana body scan meditation described by S.N. Goenka.
The guided meditations of the four immeasurables and home-
work assignments (sessions 2 to 6) were based on Pema
Chödrons audiobook “Perfect Just as You Are”(Chödron
2009). The guided meditations of Tonglen (sessions 7 and 8)
were based on Pema Chödrons “Going To the Places That
Scare You”(Chödron 2002). The program was conducted by
the authors, Kousha Safarzadeh and Erik Wallmark, who both
have significant personal familiarization and experience with
the applied techniques.
The IRI (Davis 1983) taps four separate aspects of the global
concept “empathy.”The subscales are fantasy, PT, EC, and
PD. Each subscale has seven items rated on a five-point
scale from 0 (does not describe me well) to 4 (describes me
very well). For the present study, the authors have chosen to
exclude the subscale fantasy. The Swedish version of IRI is
translated and validated by Cliffordson (2001) and shows
acceptable alpha values ranging from 0.71 to 0.80. In this
study, obtained alpha values were 0.83, 0.66, and 0.81 for
PT, PD, and EC, respectively.
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen et al. 1983)isa
14-item measure designed to tap the degree to which sit-
uations in one’s life are appraised as stressful. The items are
rated on a five-point scale from 1 (never) to 5 (very often).
The Swedish version is validated by Eskin and Parr (1996)
Table 1 Topic and content of each session
Session Topic Summary of content
1 Mindfulness Meditation: mindfulness of breath and bodily sensations
Lecture: introduction to sitting and laying down postures, the experience
of moment-to-moment sensations
2 Receiving loving-kindness Meditation: receiving love from others
Lecture: definition of loving-kindness, coming to know one’s ongoing
3 Loving-kindness Meditation: loving-kindness for self and others
Lecture: contemplation over the common human desire for happiness,
directing and expanding loving-kindness (seven-step expansion introduced)
4 Compassion Meditation: compassion for self and others
Lecture: contemplation over the common human desire to avoid suffering,
developing courage to stay with painful experiences through non-judgmental
observation and applying “on-the-spot”compassion
5 Empathetic joy Meditation: joy with others and self
Lecture: contentment in daily life, attention to sources of happiness, cultivating
joy in one’s own and other’s good fortune, identifying and working with
competitiveness and jealousy
6 Equanimity Meditation: noticing liking, disliking, and indifference;
Lecture: introducing the relative nature and impermanence of phenomena, noticing
and letting go of judgments/opinions, likes/dislikes
7 Tonglen for oneself Meditation: Tonglen, transforming self-directed shame and guilt into forgiveness
Lecture: uniting the four immeasurables, seeing actions and their consequences,
8 Tonglen for others Meditation: Tonglen for others in need
Lecture: utilizing difficult emotions to promote altruism, helping through
Tonglen when help is not possible
Silent meditation session, concluded with how to continue the practice
The session was included to enable collection of meditation time data from the intervention group
with an alpha value of 0.82. In this study, the alpha value
The Self-Compassion Scale (SCS; Neff 2003) is a 26-
item measure with six subscales, tapping the construct of
self-compassion. The subscales are self-kindness, self-
judgment, common humanity, isolation, mindfulness, and
overidentification. The internal consistency for the total
26-item SCS was found to be 0.92 (Neff 2003). The
Swedish translation of SCS is being validated by Ström-
berg (2010, unpublished manuscript). Obtained alpha val-
ues in this study were 0.85 for self-kindness, 0.81 for
self-judgment, 0.80 for common humanity, 0.80 for
isolation, 0.64 for mindfulness, and 0.78 for
The Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer
et al. 2006)is a 39-item scale designed to measure five
factors of mindfulness: observing, describing, acting with
awareness, non-judging, and non-reactivity. Items are rated
on a five-point scale from 1 (never or very rarely true) to 5
(very often or always true). The subscales showed satisfac-
tory alpha values ranging from 0.75 to 0.91 (Baer et al.
2006). Alpha coefficients for the Swedish version of the
FFMQ total scale and its five subscales ranged from 0.80
to 0.92 (Lilja et al. 2010). In this study, the obtained alpha
values were 0.82 for observing, 0.93 for describing, 0.88 for
acting with awareness, 0.93 for non-judging, and 0.88 for
All data analyses were carried out using the Statistical
Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) version 19.0 (SPSS
conducted to ensure that there was no violation of the
assumptions of normality, homogeneity of variances, line-
arity, and homogeneity of regression slopes. A Levene’s
test, indicating that the group variances are not equal, was
foundtobesignificantforthedescribe facet of FFMQ
(p<0.02). Because the largest variance was no more than
four times the smallest, the analysis is most likely to be valid
(Howell 2010). In this case, the largest variance was
approximately twice the smallest, indicating that the violation
was not severe.
Independent-samples ttest was used to compare the
pretest scores of all dependent variables for the intervention
and control groups. Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA)
was conducted to investigate the effect of the four immeas-
urables intervention on outcome measures of altruistic ori-
entation, empathy, mindfulness, self-compassion, and
stress, controlling for pretest differences on these measures
in the intervention and control groups. Paired-samples ttest
(one-tailed) was used to assess changes within groups. Pre–
post effect sizes (Cohen’sd) were calculated using the
formula suggested by Rosenthal (1984) for matched-pairs
A Bonferroni correction was employed to control for
multiple comparisons and to minimize the type I error rate
in the absence of distinct hypotheses at the subscale level for
the FFMQ and SCS. Only differences of p<0.01 were
Attest for independent samples indicated that the interven-
tion group scored significantly lower on self-kindness, t
(40)0−2.03, p<0.05, d00.62; PD, t(40)02.18, p<0.05,
d00.67; and other-oriented tendency (EC−PD), t(40) 0
−2.51, p<0.05, d00.77, as compared to the control group.
No other significant differences (all other p> 0.10) on de-
pendent variables were found between groups.
Post-Intervention Difference in Altruistic-Oriented Tenden-
A one-way between-groups ANCOVA was used to explore
the effect of the four immeasurables intervention on
altruistic-oriented tendency (i.e., EC−PD). A small differ-
ence on post-intervention scores was obtained, showing a
tendency (p00.10) towards significance (see Table 2). Be-
cause of the significant differences between groups on pre-
intervention scores, additional analyses were performed to
assess changes within groups. A paired ttest showed
significant changes in altruistic-oriented tendency scores,
t(19)0−3.16, p00.005, d00.73, for the intervention
group. Cohen’sd(0.73) indicated a large effect size. No
significant within-groups change was found for the control
Post-Intervention Difference in Perceived Stress, Empathy,
Mindfulness, and Self-Compassion
ANCOVA was also used to compare the effects of training
in the four immeasurables on stress, empathy, mindfulness,
and self-compassion. After adjusting for pre-intervention
scores, significant differences were found between interven-
tion and control groups on post-intervention scores for all
measures except EC, PD and the FFMQ facet non-judge
(see Table 2).
The intervention group reported significantly lower post-
intervention scores on perceived stress as compared to the
control group, F(1, 39)08.17, p00.01, η
that the four immeasurables intervention contributes signif-
icantly to decreased levels of perceived stress.
Table 2 Means and standard deviations (in parentheses), correlations between pre vs post scores, Cohen’sdfor paired means, one-way ANCOVA, and effect sizes for all variables
Variable Intervention group (n020) Control group (n022) ANCOVA
Pre Post rdPre Post rdFpη²
PSS 40.15 (6.39) 34.40 (5.57) 0.44 0.93 42.23 (8.84) 40.59 (8.27) 0.71 0.26 8.17 0.01 0.17
EC 28.70 (4.04) 29.25 (4.33) 0.83 0.23 30.27 (2.76) 29.68 (3.54) 0.54 0.20 0.95 0.34 0.02
PT 25.80 (4.77) 27.20 (3.53) 0.82 0.52 25.91 (4.55) 25.68 (3.64) 0.72 0.07 4.88 0.03 0.11
PD 21.85 (3.75) 19.45 (4.89) 0.72 0.72 19.23 (4.02) 19.23 (3.26) 0.72 0.00 3.07 0.09 0.07
EC−PD 6.85 (6.32) 9.80 (7.12) 0.81 0.73 11.05 (4.41) 10.45 (4.18) 0.37 ns 0.12 2.71 0.10 0.07
FFMQ, total 121.6(20.70) 139.5(19.04) 0.52 0.94 120.77(25.77) 123.59(25.31) 0.86 0.21 10.46 0.001 0.21
Observe 25.40 (6.28) 28.43 (5.24) 0.74 0.90 25.18 (6.66) 26.18 (6.87) 0.93 0.40 8.15 0.01 0.17
Describe 27.55 (5.01) 30.85 (5.84) 0.65 0.73 29.18 (7.37) 29.73 (8.58) 0.93 0.17 4.73 0.04 0.11
Act with awareness 23.95 (5.86) 27.25 (6.07) 0.49 0.57 21.36 (6.81) 20.50 (5.95) 0.60 0.15 11.38 0.001 0.23
Non-judge 25.35 (6.96) 30.20 (6.62) 0.67 0.90 25.14 (8.72) 27.82 (8.14) 0.78 0.49 2.03 0.16 0.05
Non-reactivity 18.25 (5.21) 22.05 (3.62) 0.16 ns 0.67 18.68 (5.82) 19.36 (5.64) 0.81 0.20 5.70 0.02 0.13
SCS, total 72.50 (16.35) 88.20 (13.15) 0.63 1.24 80.95 (18.23) 80.32(18.38) 0.89 0.08 19.59 0.001 0.33
Self-kindness 13.95 (4.56) 17.25 (3.06) 0.52 0.86 16.64 (4.03) 16.68 (4.28) 0.83 0.02 5.71 0.02 0.13
Self-judgment 16.20 (3.93) 12.50 (4.06) 0.72 1.26 14.14 (4.63) 13.00 (4.43) 0.74 0.36 4.60 0.04 0.11
Common humanity 11.70 (3.69) 13.95 (2.70) 0.73 0.92 13.23 (3.57) 12.86 (3.41) 0.82 0.18 11.37 0.001 0.23
Isolation 11.62 (3.79) 9.52 (2.98) 0.71 0.78 11.59 (3.91) 12.00 (4.08) 0.83 0.18 12.00 0.001 0.24
Mindfulness 11.50 (2.31) 13.20 (2.50) 0.60 0.81 12.59 (3.19) 11.77 (3.05) 0.77 0.40 12.28 0.001 0.24
Overidentification 14.80 (2.86) 12.15 (2.52) 0.55 1.06 13.77 (3.48) 14.00 (3.12) 0.80 0.11 15.28 0.001 0.28
All other rvalues are significant at at least p<0.05
ns nonsignificant, PSS Perceived Stress Scale, IRI Interpersonal Reactivity Index, EC −PD empathic concern subscale minus personal distress subscale, FFMQ Five-Facet Mindfulness
Questionnaire, SCS Self-Compassion Scale
Regarding post-intervention differences in empathy-
related measures, a significant between-groups difference
was found only on PT post-intervention scores, F(1, 39) 0
4.88, p00.03, η
00.11, while no significant post-
intervention differences were found on either EC or PD.
However, when scores on PD were inspected in both groups
at the two time points, a notable decrease in scores was
observed for the intervention group while scores for the
control group remained almost unchanged. Additional anal-
yses were thus performed to assess changes within groups.
A paired ttest showed significant changes in PD scores, t
(19)03.13, p00.005, d00.72, for the intervention group.
Cohen’sd(0.72) indicated a large effect size. No significant
within-groups change was found for the control group.
Regarding post-intervention differences in mindfulness
as measured by the FFMQ, the largest between-groups
differences were found on the composite FFMQ post-
intervention scores, F(1, 39)010.46, p< 0.001, η
and FFMQ facet act with awareness,F(1, 39)011.38, p<
00.23, implying a significant increase in mindful-
ness for the intervention group.
Regarding post-intervention differences in self-compassion,
significant between-groups differences were found on all six
subscales, with the largest differences obtained on the compos-
ite SCS, F(1, 39)019.59, p<0.001, η
00.33, and its subscales:
overidentification,F(1, 39)015.28, p<0.001, η
tion,F(1, 39)012.00, p<0.001, η
00.24; and common hu-
manity,F(1, 39)011.37, p<0.001, η
00.23, indicating a
higher degree of self-kindness, sense of common humanity,
and a more balanced approach to one’s own inner experiences
for those who participated in the intervention as compared to
those who did not.
Relationship Between Meditation Time and Pre–Post
Tab le 3shows the correlations between total meditation
practice time and pre–post-intervention changes on all de-
pendent variables. Total meditation time during the inter-
vention period was significantly related to a decrease in
perceived stress, r0−0.47, p00.04, and an increase in the
mindfulness composite scale, r00.45, p00.05. Furthermore,
a moderate, significant association was found between med-
itation time and altruistic orientation, r00.46, p00.04, im-
plying that meditation time tends to be important for the
development of the dispositional tendency to feel EC rather
than PD in situations of perceiving another as in need.
Table 3 Pearson correlations between total meditation time and pre–
post changes on all measures for the intervention group
Change in Total meditation practice time
PSS −0.47 0.04
EC 0.31 0.18
PT 0.37 0.11
PD −0.34 0.15
EC−PD 0.46 0.04
FFMQ, total 0.45 0.05
Observe 0.18 0.45
Describe 0.43 0.06
Act with awareness 0.38 0.10
Non-judge 0.31 0.19
Non-reactivity 0.41 0.07
SCS, total 0.22 0.35
Self-kindness 0.03 0.80
Self-judgment −0.28 0.23
Common humanity 0.12 0.62
Isolation −0.09 0.72
Mindfulness 0.50 0.03
Overidentification −0.23 0.32
PSS Perceived Stress Scale, IRI Interpersonal Reactivity Index, EC−
PD empathic concern subscale minus personal distress subscale,
FFMQ Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, SCS Self-Compassion
Tab l e 4 Correlations between pre- and post-intervention change
scores for four empathy measures and other measures concerning
stress, mindfulness, and self-compassion for the intervention group
Change in IRI
EC PT PD EC −PD
PSS 0.19 −0.46** 0.52** −0.31
FFMQ, total 0.41* 0.38* −0.27 0.46**
Observe 0.05 0.25 −0.30 0.27
Describe 0.52** 0.26 −0.12 0.40*
Act with awareness 0.50** 0.05 −0.11 0.38*
Non-judge 0.14 0.25 −0.15 0.21
Non-reactivity 0.38* 0.62*** −0.29 0.46**
SCS, total 0.02 0.11 −0.47** 0.39*
Self-kindness −0.08 0.03 −0.44** 0.31
Self-judgment −0.12 −0.09 0.23 −0.26
Common humanity 0.11 0.12 −0.31 0.32
Isolation 0.20 0.35 0.25 −0.09
Mindfulness 0.21 0.37 −0.50** 0.53**
Overidentification −0.01 −0.36 0.44* −0.36
PSS Perceived Stress Scale, IRI Interpersonal Reactivity Index, EC−
PD empathic concern and personal distress difference scores, FFMQ
Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, SCS Self-Compassion Scale
*p<0.10; **p< 0.05; ***p< 0.01
Relationships Between Pre–Post Change Scores
For Empathy-Related Measures and Other Variables
As shown in Table 4, associations between pre and post
change scores between the IRI scales (including altruistic
orientation) and other variables were observed. The in-
crease in EC was found to be related to increases in the
mindfulness facets describe,r00.52, p<0.05, and act with
awareness,r00.50, p<0.05. Increases in PT showed a
strong, significant positive correlation with changes in the
mindfulness facet non-reactivity,r00.62, p<0.01, and neg-
ative correlation with changes in perceived stress, r0
−0.46, p<0.05. Decreases in PD showed a strong positive
correlation to decreases in perceived stress, r00.52, p<
0.05, as well as a negative correlation with the composite
SCS, r0−0.47, p<0.05. Furthermore, increases in non-
reactivity, r00.46, p<0.05, and mindfulness, both as mea-
suredbyFFMQ,r00.46, p<0.05,andbySCS,r00.53, p<
0.05, were all associated toward increases in altruistic
According to Cohen’s(1988) conventions for the correla-
tion coefficient that itself is a measure of effect size, r0±0.50
indicates a large effect size. Majority of the correlations were
close or above the threshold for a large effect size, indicating
importance of the examined relationships.
Participants who engaged in the four immeasurables program
showed very beneficial outcomes as compared to those who
remained on the waiting list. They displayed increased levels
of dispositional PT, self-compassion, and mindfulness and
decreased levels of perceived stress. Engaging in the four
immeasurables thus seems to facilitate the tendency for adopt-
ing the perspective of others, promote greater non-judgmental
kindness towards oneself, viewing suffering as a common
shared experience, and foster the relation to emotions with
mindful attention rather than over-identifying.
Surprisingly, no significant changes were observed on
dispositional EC and PD—the measures of main signifi-
cance for altered altruistic orientation. A tendency towards
significance was, however, obtained, and results of a paired t
test (i.e., within-group changes from pre- to post-
intervention) furthermore showed a significant change in
altruistic orientation for the intervention group, whereas no
change was observed for the control group. The significant
change among meditation participants indicates that the
intervention altered altruistic orientation for those engaging
in the practice. Moreover, change in altruistic orientation
among the intervention group exhibited a significant corre-
lation with the amount of time spent practicing meditation
during the intervention period. This important finding is in
line with our predictions and indicates that it is the actual
engaging in the meditations that cultivates altruism and not
just attending the group sessions.
In line with Birnie et al. (2010) exploring the effects of 8-
week mindfulness-based programs on empathy, we similarly
obtained significant pre to post changes on dispositional PT,
but not on dispositional EC, as measured with the IRI (Davis
1983). There are at least five likely explanations for these
results. First, and perhaps the most plausible explanation, is
the unfortunate pretest heterogeneity between the control
and intervention groups on dispositional EC. Second, it
may be that 8 weeks is too short of a time period for changes
in dispositional EC. Third, it is also possible that there are
construct validity issues concerning “compassion”as culti-
vated in meditation and “EC”as measured by the IRI scale.
The latter concept is highly correlated with personality traits
such as emotional reactivity, r00.52 (Davis 1983,1994),
whereas compassion in its traditional context is expected to
be associated with calmness, insight, and a natural inclina-
tion towards kindness (Dalai Lama and Cutler 1998;
McLeod 2001). No association between changes in EC
and self-compassion furthermore point to the need for addi-
tional definitional clarifications in the field. Fourth, it may
be that meditation on the four immeasurables does not alter
dispositional EC—a possible but highly unlikely alternative.
A fifth more plausible explanation may be that EC is culti-
vated in the four immeasurables through activating the
“valuing the other path”via PT (Batson 2011) which thus
may exhibit a “delay effect”(as observed in Batson et al.
1997)—from enhanced tendency to adopt the perspective of
others to the increased tendency to feel EC. A follow-up
measure on participant’s levels of EC could investigate such
Interestingly, changes in PT in the intervention group
were significantly related to increases in the mindfulness
(FFMQ) facet non-reactivity. In line with Decety and
Lamm’s(2011) assertion that facilitated inhibition (of the
self-perspective) enhances the ability to adopt the perspec-
tive of another, self-regulation may hence be a pathway by
which mindfulness skills promote PT. As noted above,
increased PT has important interpersonal implications such
as reducing prejudice (Batson and Ahmad 2009) and pro-
moting greater social connectedness (Galinsky and Mosko-
witz 2000). Consequently, meditations on the four
immeasurables seem to be viable approaches for increasing
the tendency to adopt the perspective of others.
Although dispositional PD showed no significant
between-groups differences, a paired-samples ttest showed
a significant change between pretest and posttest scores for
the intervention group, whereas no significant change was
obtained for the controls. This result is not clear-cut, but it
may indicate that engaging in the meditations of the four
immeasurables decreases PD. Decreased levels of PD in the
intervention group were most notably associated with
increases in self-compassion. This implies that self-
compassion reduces the tendency for feeling alarmed, dis-
turbed, and upset when facing other’s distress, reducing self-
focused efforts to alleviate one’s own distress rather than the
other’s distress. This finding is furthermore in line with
studies indicating that self-compassion is positively linked
to mental health (Neff 2003) and inversely linked to psy-
chopathology (Van Dam et al. 2011).
Significant differences between groups on post-
intervention scores for all six self-compassion subscales
were found in this study. This result implies a higher degree
of self-kindness, sense of common humanity, and a more
balanced approach to one’s own inner experiences. Medita-
tion time was, however, surprisingly not related to self-
compassion, except for the mindfulness subscale—possibly
due to the relatively small sample size.
A central theme in the four immeasurables training as
adopted here (Chödron 2009) was to let go of “the story-
line”—that is, to let go of thought content and returning to
ongoing moment-to-moment direct experience and notice
the emotional effect of engaging in the practice. The four
immeasurables entail mindfulness (Hofmann et al. 2011).
As expected, significant changes in mindfulness for the
intervention group were found, confirming previous studies
on the effects of mindfulness-based interventions (e.g., Baer
2003; Davidson et al. 2003). Decreased levels of stress were
also obtained here for those participating in the intervention.
Thus, this study makes an important contribution by show-
ing that the meditations of the four immeasurables cultivate
stress-reducing effects, though this was not explicitly em-
phasized. Time spent practicing the four immeasurables was
furthermore correlated with both reduced perceived stress as
well as increased mindfulness. The finding that the amount
of meditative experience is related to the degree of mindful-
ness is in line with the findings by Lykins and Baer (2009).
Limitations of the Present Study
Although EC, as measured by the IRI (Davis 1983), has been
linked to helping and experiences of EC (Davis 1994), the
relationship between IRI and altruistic motivation is not clear
(Batson 2011). Batson et al. (1986), for example, showed that
correlations between EC (as measured with the IRI) and
condition as compared to a difficult-escape condition, indicat-
ing an egoistic motivation for viewing oneself as altruistic
rather than an actual desire to increase the other’s welfare may
be in play. There is ambiguous evidence for correlations
between IRI (Davis 1983) scores and neuroimaging data
investigating empathic activation (Decety and Lamm 2011).
A second limitation in this study is the small sample size,
which can lead to attenuated statistical power and an
increased risk of type II error. However, large effect sizes
indicate noteworthy changes in many studied outcomes for
those who completed the intervention as well as in the
importance of the studied relationships. The small sample
size may explain why the random assignment procedure
failed to yield more homogenous groups. Also, participants
in this study were recruited using convenience sampling. All
individuals were well-educated and strictly screened for
pathology and substance abuse. They were also highly mo-
tivated to participate in meditation practice. Generalization
of the findings is thus limited, warranting further
Conclusions and Future Directions
Meditation may offer a powerful source for human develop-
ment. This study presents a number of significant and impor-
tant effects of engaging in the Buddhist meditations of loving-
kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, as well as the
practice of Tonglen (“taking and sending”). The findings sug-
gest that engaging in the meditations facilitates the tendency for
adopting the perspective of others, promotes non-judgmental
kindness towards oneself, helps view suffering as a common
shared experience, and fosters relations to emotions with mind-
ful attention rather than over-identifying with them. This study
further contributes to extant findings showing that not only
mindfulness- and relaxation-focused interventions (e.g. Baer
2003) but also meditations based on the four immeasurables
contribute to decreased levels of perceived stress. Prominent
increases in mindfulness and self-compassion suggest that
these meditations also lead to improved emotional regulation
strategies entailing a balanced awareness with one’s ongoing
emotional experience, without the need to either suppress or
express it (Neff 2003).
Training the mind through meditation offers an exciting
new path of inquiry in psychology, and the field is currently
only in its infancy. This study introduced the meditations of
the four immeasurables as a promising approach for the
cultivation of compassion and interpersonal kindness. This
may go beyond individuals and have practical applications
for professional clinical psychologists. Grepmair et al.
(2007), for example, showed that psychotherapists who
engaged in mindfulness meditation were more successful
in therapy as compared to non-meditators. Patients of med-
itating therapists showed a significant decrease in symptom
severity and rated their therapist significantly higher on
clarification and problem-solving skills as compared to
patients treated by non-meditating therapists. Further studies
with more rigorous and multifaceted methods are required
for a deeper exploration of this new and promising
Batson (2011) offers in his “empathy-induced altruism
hypothesis”(EAH) an intriguing model where altruistic
motivation mainly emerges from the antecedents (1) per-
ceiving the other as in need and (2) valuing the other’s
welfare. Further studies may investigate the four immeasur-
ables in the experimental paradigm of EAH and especially
whether the four immeasurables can alter valuing other’s
welfare. If this is so, the four immeasurables may be a
uniquely powerful method, utilizing focused attentional
resources for coming to cherish others’subjective experi-
ence of life.
Altruism research has, to date, mainly been concerned
with aversive states such as when perceiving another as in
need. Life is, however, in constant flux, entailing all sorts of
valenced conditions. We, therefore, encourage further inves-
tigation of altruism also in the context of perceiving others
in neutral and appetitive conditions.
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