Buddhism has long been called a path to enlightenment, but a new study reveals you don't need to travel very far down that road to get some of its benefits.
The study, which involved 355 participants ranging from Christian Westerns to Taiwanese residents and three separate experiments, found exposure to Buddhist words like "nirvana" and "dharma" can lead to increased tolerance and prosocial behavior. It additionally found such words improved prosociality more than general words with positive associations, such as "freedom."
The study also found that exposing respondents, including Christians, to comparable Christian concepts did not improve tolerance levels. The researchers posited that "Unlike Christian and other monotheistic religious systems that paradoxically seem to encourage not only prosociality but also prejudice, Buddhist ideas favor both prosociality and outgroup tolerance..."
This unusual religious combination in Buddhism of prosociality and discouraging prejudice could just be what sets it apart from all other religions and, as the researchers suggest, is most likely why it had the most positive effect on the participants.
A comment on inclusion. If this study tells us anything, it's that an inclusive mindset can increase compassion for human populations that are different from us.
Dr. Miles Neale, the assistant director of Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, psychology mentor of the Interdependence Project (a center for "multi-linear, secular" Buddhists) and practicing psychotherapist, spoke with Psychology Today about Buddhism's impact on humanity.
"Buddhism addresses this root cause, the fundamental delusion of separateness," Neale told Psychology Today. He added that Buddhism specifically targets the "distorted perception [that] forces us to misapprehend things as separate, including ourselves, thus pitting us against a world of discrete entities and compelling us to gratify and defend that which we arbitrarily deem as 'I,' 'me' or 'mine.'"
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that millennia-old concepts about connectedness and unity can help improve prosociality. The question remains whether or not we can apply these lessons to society in an effort to augment prosocial behavior.
For the greater good. While priming (observing how exposure to a word or idea can influence behavior) has increasingly been used in the psychological evaluation of religion's impact on the psyche, it is far from a clear-cut process. As a study published in February found, "Religious priming does not, however, reliably affect non-religious participants — suggesting that priming depends on the cognitive activation of culturally transmitted religious beliefs."
Even if the effect of religious priming is debatable, there could be a useful theme here. Non-religious primers, such as images of eyes, can improve our social behavior and make us more cooperative. A 2010 study found anti-litter ads in the subway with pictures of eyes were twice as effective as those with pictures of flowers.
It might be worth spending some time exploring these incredibly simple and cost-effective ways of making us behave in more thoughtful and compassionate ways. While Buddhist concepts may make us a little more humane, you don't have to be a Buddhist to be kinder.