Mindfulness and Empathy: Differential Effects of Explicit and Implicit Buddhist Teachings


Several authors argue that interpersonal changes such as benevolence, compassion, and empathy should naturally emerge from a diligent practice of mindfulness. While empirical data from secularized and standardized mindfulness interventions do not fully support this assumption, a group of authors suggest that making underlying Buddhist teachings explicit within mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) might be a key factor in the modification of such culturally rooted aspects of interpersonal functioning. In order to investigate this suggestion, we compared a mindfulness program that explicitly integrates elements of Buddhist ethics (i.e., the four immeasurables) and wisdom (i.e., interdependency, non-self, common humanity) (ethics-oriented mindfulness training (EMT)), to a standard mindfulness training (SMT) program and a control group (i.e., waiting list), with a randomized controlled design in a community sample. Empathy components (i.e., affective responding, mentalization, emotion regulation, and behavioral responding), as well as variables that are typically associated with MBIs (i.e., mindfulness, self-compassion, and well-being) were assessed using multi-dimensional measures (i.e., self-reported, behavioral, physiological). Results showed no overall effects on empathy of our interventions in comparison with our control group. With regard to other variables, we found specific effects for each of our interventions. Whereas SMT led to a stable increase in mindfulness (Cohen’s d = .7), EMT led instead to increases in self-compassion (Cohen’s d = .8) and subjective well-being (Cohen’s d = .54). Although challenging theoretical expectations, we posit that our lack of empathy effects might be explained by several factors such as program structure, individual differences, and culture.

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MB designed and executed the study, analyzed the data, and wrote the paper. NV assisted with the data analyses and collaborated with the design and writing of the study. AK collaborated in the writing and editing of the final manuscript. MM collaborated with the design and writing of the study.

Correspondence to Marie Bayot.

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This study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Université catholique de Louvain, in accordance with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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All individual participants included in the study gave their informed consent prior to data collection.

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Bayot, M., Vermeulen, N., Kever, A. et al. Mindfulness and Empathy: Differential Effects of Explicit and Implicit Buddhist Teachings. Mindfulness 11, 5–17 (2020) doi:10.1007/s12671-018-0966-4

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  • Buddhism
  • Ethics
  • Four immeasurables
  • (self-)compassion
  • Second-generation mindfulness-based interventions