A Little Mindfulness Goes a Long Way

You walk in for your appointment.

You greet the receptionist. She says, “Just have a seat. We’ll call you when we’re ready.” You turn around and there are three chairs, two of them already occupied by people reading a magazine or looking at their phone. You take the empty seat and wait.

A few minutes later a woman on crutches, with a clunky orthopedic boot on, comes hobbling down the corridor toward the waiting room. She struggles with the door, enters, looks around, and seeing no empty chairs, she slumps against the wall, wincing in pain.

What do you do? Do you stand up and hold the door for her? Do you offer her your seat? Of course you do, right? That’s what any conscientious and thoughtful person would do. In fact, when David DeSteno and his researchers asked people what they would do in that circumstance, the overwhelming majority said they would stand and offer their seat.

Then they staged the experiment, with an actor on crutches and actors in the other chairs instructed to ignore the injured woman. Initially, they picked 19 people to go through the experiment. The participants thought they were in a room waiting for the experiment to begin, but the waiting room was the experiment. Of those 19 people, only 3 actually stood and offered to help. Three. That’s 16%. The researchers were so surprised they repeated the study and got the same results.

I know. It’s appalling. But in his research, DeSteno admits that they stacked the deck a little. Since the other actors were told to ignore the person on crutches, they had set up a classic bystander effect in which it’s hard to act against the behavior of those around them.

But still, 16%? That’s pretty disappointing. Then the researchers added just one change to the experiment. The next group of research participants were asked to engage in eight weeks of meditation training before they entered the waiting room. For eight weeks participants met regularly with Buddhist master Lama Willa Miller who offered instruction and guidance in meditation practice. Lama Miller also provided audio recordings for participants to practice at home.

That’s it. That’s the only difference. All participants had no prior meditation experience at all. Half of the participants meditated regularly for eights weeks. The other half did not. The results? Fifty percent (50%) of the group that meditated acknowledged the woman’s distress, stood up, engaged her in conversation, helped her with the door, and offered her their chair.

DeSteno has been researching the impact of regular mindfulness practice on human behavior for years, and what he has discovered is that simple meditation and mindfulness leads consistently to empathy and compassion for others. That compassion for others leads to a sense of self-control, willingness, and ability to make a difference to others.

In short, then, our research suggests that mindfulness’s most profound benefit may not be the one that’s most often touted—adapting to a stressful, competitive, even unkind 24/7 world. Instead, meditation might fundamentally alter how we treat those around us.
– David DeSteno, Ph.D.

Don’t be put off or intimidated by the idea of meditation. You don’t have to get into the lotus position, invoke a deity, and unlock your third eye chakra. The basic ingredients of meditation are simple and readily available – even in the midst of a crazy day. You need only a quiet place, focused attention, relaxed breathing, a comfortable position, and an open attitude.

Grab a copy of David DeSteno’s book here. It’s packed with research and ideas on the power of leveraging emotion – not just sheer willpower – to live a more connected and fulfilling life.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.