Compassion meditators show less anger, less punishment, and more compensation of victims in response to fairness violations

Cade McCall, Nikolaus Steinbeis, Matthieu Ricard, Tania Singer

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Fairness violations elicit powerful behavioral and affective responses. Indeed, people are willing to incur costs to sanction unfair behavior. Here we study the possible impact of long-term mental training in socio-affective capacities such as compassion on altruistic punishment and compensatory behavior in economic games. To this end we recruited a group of long-term meditation practitioners (LTPs) who had engaged in an average of 40 K h of mental training exercises including compassion-related meditation, along with a group of meditation-naïve controls. Participants played several adaptations of the dictator game in which they had the opportunity to punish the dictator both when they were the recipients of the dictator's offer and when they were third-party witnesses to the dictator's treatment of an anonymous second player. Compared to controls, LTPs were less likely to punish when they were the victims of fairness violations. However, both groups punished equivalently when they witnessed others receiving unfair treatment. In post-task questionnaires, controls reported significantly more anger in response to unfair offers than LTPs, although fairness judgments did not differ between groups. These data suggest that because the LTPs were less angered by unfair treatment of themselves, they punished that behavior less. However, when they witnessed the unfair treatment of others, they engaged in norm-reinforcing punishment. Finally, when participants played an additional game which included the opportunity to recompense victims, LTPs were more likely to do so. Together these data point to differential approaches to justice whereby LTPs engaged less in vengeful, retributive justice and focused more on norm reinforcement and the restoration of equity. These differences suggest that social preferences are plastic and that altruistic responses to unfairness may be shaped by the prolonged cultivation of prosocial motivation, altruism, and compassion.

Original languageEnglish
Article number424
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in behavioral neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2014

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