Via USA Today, we learn about a study showing that people who meditate frequently behave in a more rational manner than non-meditators, and they do so because different parts of their brain take charge of certain kinds of decisions.
The study was based around a common test of rational behavior called the Ultimatum Game. Two people sit at a table. One of them is given a sum of money ($20 in this case), and is told to split that however she wants with the other. Before she makes that decision, the other subject is told that if he rejects the share offered to him, neither player will get any money, but if he accepts his share, they both keep their share of the money.

Experiments like this have been run for 30 years now, and consistently find that people are happy to accept a 50:50 split, but tend to reject the offer of free money when their share of the money drops below some threshold (usually around 70:30). From a purely rational perspective, this is silly. Free money is free money, after all, and how much someone else gets shouldn’t make a difference. But it does, because of our sense of fairness, and a desire to punish greed.

That desire is rational in some contexts, but not in the Ultimatum Game. In general, people in large social groups should want to punish greed because selfishness is bad for society. If there’s a chance of repeated interactions, that punishment ought to make people more likely to behave fairly in the future. Experiments with social monkeys find a similar recognition of unfairness, and a desire to punish it, and similar behavior has been seen in vampire bats. But in the Ultimatum Game, you only get one shot, and the smart move is to take the free money. Punishing greed serves no purpose there, but people do it consistently.

The researchers decided to see whether “expert meditators” behaved differently from the general public. They recruited 26 practitioners of Buddhist meditation, folks with an average 10 years of practice (ranging from 6 months to 24 years), who lead otherwise secular lives involving a career, family, etc. For comparison, they recruited a demographically comparable group of 40 non-meditators.

They let each of the subjects serve as a responder in the Ultimatum Game. Each responder dealt with a different partner for each round of the game. The partners were confederates of the researchers, tasked with offering standardized splits of the $20 in a randomized order.

i-8f52790221fe63aeb0b902e126b287bb-meditatorsrationality.jpgThe control group behaved as is typical in these experiments, with steady declines in acceptance after a 70:30 (14:6) split. Meditators began rejecting offers at the same point, but the rate of their decline leveled off around 50% for very poor offers (18:2 and 19:1), while the control group kept dropping. In other words, they were less willing to punish greedy behavior, and more willing to behave rationally by accepting unfair offers.
The researchers then used fMRI to find out what parts of the brain were activated by these different sorts of offers (fMRI detects areas of the brain with more blood flow and therefore more neural activity). Previous work had explored the neurobiology of the Ultimatum Game, but this study found striking differences between the activation patterns in the control group and in the meditators, with the authors reporting: “Strikingly, there was very little overlap in activity between meditators and controls.” Comparing the networks of brain regions activated by unfair offers, they found that the control group matched previous studies’ findings, while “In sharp contrast, meditators showed activity in an entirely separate network”

Surprisingly, given that they were behaving more rationally, the meditators “did not draw upon … regions typically seen for mathematical and logical reasoning. Instead, they drew upon … areas usually linked to visceral, emotional rather than rational, deliberative functions.” Their brain patterns were not those associated with an abstract analysis of the game’s logic, but rather matched patterns seen in people contemplating altruistic actions.

As the authors note, this study cannot say whether meditation caused a change in brain activity, or whether people with tendencies toward these more rational (or perhaps altruistic) brain patterns are more likely to become Buddhist meditators. Nor, if these people’s brains really did change, can we distinguish whether meditation caused that, or if Buddhist teachings in general might have rechannelled how people think about situations like the Ultimatum Game.

If meditation is retraining the brain, then it’s entirely possible that we’d find similar effects from prayer, as other research has found comparable effects on the brain between prayer and meditation. If the trend holds, it may suggest that people who decide to pray or meditate may wind up behaving more rationally than those who reject prayer and meditation as irrational.

Comments

  1. #1 Chimacintosh
    April 20, 2011

    Thanks for the article. I noted this on my blog. Here is a beautiful meditation photo.

    http://chimac.net/2010/09/28/meditation-photo/

  2. #2 Giles
    April 20, 2011

    Just as in Prisoner’s Dilemma, the fact that individuals act “rationally” doesn’t mean that the group does.

    If everyone in society behaved like the meditators it would be a disaster because no-one would bother punishing anyone for bad behavior.

  3. #3 Ed S.
    April 20, 2011

    So, I read this as meditators are only slightly less irrational; plus, they use the wrong part of their brain to analyze a situation. This does not seem like a big advantage. If the brain activities match up with altruism, could it be, “let ‘em keep the big share, they’re gonna have it anyway”? Anyway, if you’re jumping to conclusions, why not assume that those using a more emotional part of the brain suffer from despair at the unfair proportions, then just give up and take what they can get.

  4. #4 Anna
    April 20, 2011

    Giles, if everyone behaved liked meditators there would be far less bad behavior to punish. ;-)

  5. #5 Anthony McCarthy
    April 20, 2011

    It wouldn’t surprise me if meditation made people more efficient thinkers, it’s a form of continuing mental discipline, if nothing else.

    There is a problem with the idea that this Ultimate Game can decide which decision is the most rational. You would have to know the motive in making a decision, which could vary among different people, before you decide what decision they “ought” to have taken. Call me old fashioned but I don’t think that you can come to a fixed decision that one outcome would objectively be the better one. I was taught that science couldn’t assess “ought” statements, not even one borrowed from this kind of “logic”.

    In the case of Buddhist meditators, that would be especially difficult because the ideal of many schools of Buddhism is one of extreme material dispossession, depending on alms. “A person’s grief comes from acquisitions, since a person with no acquisitions doesn’t grieve.” Nandana Sutta

    That said, the difference between the meditators and the controll looks significant to me. Though the sample is pretty small.

  6. #6 marvin nubwaxer
    April 20, 2011

    “Joshua Rosenau spends his days defending the teaching of evolution . . .” I am ashamed to live in the USA if this is true. No wonder we are slipping ever further behind the rest of the rational world.

  7. #7 Riman Butterbur
    April 20, 2011

    This study needs to be repeated by some more rational investigators. The notion that

    Free money is free money, after all, and how much someone else gets shouldn’t make a difference. But it does, because of our sense of fairness, and a desire to punish greed.

    That desire is rational in some contexts, but not in the Ultimatum Game. In general, people in large social groups should want to punish greed because selfishness is bad for society. If there’s a chance of repeated interactions, that punishment ought to make people more likely to behave fairly in the future…. But in the Ultimatum Game, you only get one shot, and the smart move is to take the free money. Punishing greed serves no purpose there….

    is nuts. Where did they get the idea that this game is played in a social vacuum? Or that a chance at a dollar or two is worth the societal cost of letting selfishness go unpunished?

    That these Buddhists were more accepting of selfish behavior is no more surprizing than that their brain patterns did not show rational thought processes at work. Unselfishness, ungreediness, rejection of materialism are all part of the Buddhist philosophy. Naturally, they chose to act altruistically rather than rationally.

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    April 20, 2011

    Particularly given meditation’s connection to episodes of psychosis and given work showing a role for emotions in good decision-making, I wouldn’t rush to label choosing short-term personal gain over longer-term social enforcement as the rational choice. We know meditators are doing something different and doing it differently. We don’t know enough about it to provide value labels, and I’m disappointed that the authors chose to do so.

  9. #9 Anton Mates
    April 20, 2011

    If the trend holds, it may suggest that people who decide to pray or meditate may wind up behaving more rationally than those who reject prayer and meditation as irrational.

    Possibly. OTOH, a Swiss-English study published in Proceedings B found that religiously involved subjects are less likely to behave “rationally” in this game–that is, when primed with religious concepts, they’re more likely to reject unfair offers. If people who pray also tend to be active within their faith, this might produce an opposite trend. Or maybe that’s just Switzerland.

    In any case, as Anthony and Riman point out, “rational” is being used in a very idiosyncratic sense here (as it usually is in the social sciences). The player is expected to seek to maximize their short-term financial intake at all costs, and to assume that they will never again meet the person with whom they played the game. These behaviors don’t have much of anything to do with philosophical rationality, which is what people arguing over prayer/meditation/etc. are usually invoking.

    As the authors note, this study cannot say whether meditation caused a change in brain activity, or whether people with tendencies toward these more rational (or perhaps altruistic) brain patterns are more likely to become Buddhist meditators.

    Of course, there’s the third option–both altruistic brain patterns and Buddhist meditationy lifestyles may be consequences of some other demographic peculiarity.

    My main reservation about this paper is the lack of concern for confounds. The control group was shown to be demographically comparable on just three variables: gender, age and SES. That’s a problem, because American Buddhists are far from the norm on several other variables. They tend to be far more politically liberal and far more highly educated than the average American, have fewer children and are less likely to marry. Heck, they’re also concentrated on the West Coast–and a meta-analysis in Experimental Economics found that people from the Western US are more likely to accept unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game than Easterners are.

    So does altruism make you more likely to meditate, does meditation make you altruistic, or does being liberal/educated/childless/Californian make you altruistic and more likely to meditate? Or none of the above? Who knows?

  10. #10 dee
    April 20, 2011

    I think the reason for the behavior is a greater sense of compassion more than anything else

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    April 20, 2011

    To be clear: I tried to be consistent in describing the behavior as rational, and not to label the people as rational. Rational behavior is behavior fitting various forms of optimality according to straightforward economic assumptions. We know that people often behave in ways that are not rational (by this definition), and to say that those people are “irrational” would be a mistake. If nothing else, the consistent trend to the behavior suggests some shared mental process at work, and that can point out holes in our model of “rational” behavior.

    This means that a person can behave rationally for irrational reasons, which is not nearly as mind-blowing as it might seem.

    Anton: Thanks for the handy lit review! I agree that they could have done more to match demographic variables, and it would’ve been nice to at least know how socioeconomic status was quantified. I was surprised they didn’t have a control group of Buddhists who don’t meditate, and that they didn’t regress the length of time people have been meditating against the size of the brain effects. They have a range from .5-24 years, so you’d think there’d be some sort of increase in the effect of meditation over time if it really does reorganize the brain.

  12. #12 Anton Mates
    April 21, 2011

    Rational behavior is behavior fitting various forms of optimality according to straightforward economic assumptions. We know that people often behave in ways that are not rational (by this definition), and to say that those people are “irrational” would be a mistake.

    Oh, definitely. This is a perfectly good use of “rational” in the context of the social sciences, as you mentioned. But very few people, other than Objectivists and religious conservatives of the “Faith is the only reason I don’t run out and commit RAPE AND GENOCIDE!!!1!!” persuasion, would consider it rational to actually optimize their individual behavior in this way.

    While I’m avoiding real-life work by digging up cites, Henrich et al. have published a couple of nice Science papers on cross-cultural performance in the Ultimatum Game. They found that rejection rates tend to be higher in cultures with larger community sizes, and that offers tend to be more altruistic in cultures with high rejection rates, well-developed market economies, and globe-spanning organized religions like Christianity and Islam (as opposed to animist or “native” religions).

    This suggests that people raised in small, close-knit families or tribes are actually the most “rational” ones in an economic sense. It’s only us members of big, trade-based cultures who are trained to deal fairly with relative strangers, and to punish unfairness even if it costs us. (The authors suggest that personal reputation is a more effective motivator of fair behavior in small societies, so economic punishment is less necessary.)

    Which raises yet another possible explanation for the results of this study: perhaps American Buddhists are simply less social than the average American. They certainly attend religious services much less frequently, are more likely to be single and childless, and so on. So maybe they’re less strongly conditioned to recognize and punish unfairness than American Christians.

    Or maybe they’re just not manly enough!

  13. #13 Mitch
    April 21, 2011

    Correlation is not equal to causality. Saying that because the subjects meditate means that they behave more “rationally” is incorrect. A more “rational” set of people might be more inclined to become experienced meditators, or it may be due to a whole different cause and effect relationship entirely.

  14. #14 Robin Nixon
    April 21, 2011

    Everyone in this study and the people discussing it all appear to have missed the fundamental thing about Buddhists, which is that they believe that karma will punish you – so they don’t need to.

    There, study explained.

  15. #15 Anthony McCarthy
    April 21, 2011

    I’d have guessed that really dedicated Buddhists wouldn’t feel envy as strongly as most other people, they would tend to be more indifferent to the perceived “injustice” they “suffered” in the game. Certainly not if they took the second and third of the most basic teaching into account, that desiring things is the cause of pain and letting go that desire was the cessation of pain. Certainly not if they took the parable of Prince Dighavu seriously. It’s central point is, “For vengeance is not settled through vengeance. Vengeance is settled through non-vengeance.”

    Or, maybe, through the practice of metta they would have enhanced considerations of possible need in others.

    And don’t forget, the subjects know this is an artificial game, What evidence is there that the way people act when they’re playing a game tells you anything outside of the context of gaming?

    Robin Nixon, what do you base your characterization of karma in and your assumption that Buddhists would enjoy anticipating punishment of other people through karma? It sounds pretty unBuddhist to me.

  16. #16 Anthony McCarthy
    April 21, 2011

    I could have saved myself a few minutes but just saying “What dee said”.

  17. #17 Giles
    April 21, 2011

    Anna: true. I guess I meant “if all the good guys behaved like the meditators” or “if everyone was rational in the same way as the meditators but not necessarily good at the same time”

  18. #18 Marion Delgado
    April 21, 2011

    The Ultimatum Game is stupid. And it’s insane.

    The rational response is to not take it seriously. To not be bought off. There’s nothing irrational about symbolic acts. There’s nothing rational about defining reason as ‘getting money.’

    In a one-time prisoner’s dilemma, you should always defect – that’s “rational.”

    In a sense, the social harm from letting self-proclaimed arbiters of rationality define it as, essentially, market fundamentalism, is reasonable to regard as a loss. Also, unless you’re in dire straits, it’s also true that wealth is more meaningful in comparison than in absolute terms.

  19. #19 james
    April 21, 2011

    Those of you who see this as thin, it is, it’s only one study. But if you are serious and not just feeling the (understandable) urge to bash anything new age, dig a little. The evidence that meditation is helpful on numerous physical and mental health fronts is solid.

  20. #20 Vonn
    April 21, 2011

    I am curious as to what would happen if the split went the other way. For example, if the partners said, “here, you take 19 and I’ll take 1 or even, here you take it all.”

    It would also be interesting to compare results from people who practice different kinds of contemplative practices.

  21. #21 Bruce Bookman
    April 21, 2011

    A few issues here: First, the number of subjects is very low. Second, just because you have a relationship between meditation and rational behavior does not mean that one is the cause of the other. As the article itself states “IF [big if] If meditation is retraining the brain..” “If [another big IF] the trend holds, it may suggest [MAY suggest]”

  22. #22 CS Shelton
    April 24, 2011

    What Stephanie Z and Mitch said. This is paper thin, and extrapolating from meditation to prayer is even worse. Trash. Meditation (autohypnosis) may have some utility, but this doesn’t prove much, if anything.

  23. #23 Marissa C
    April 27, 2011

    I really enjoied this blog. And i agree that meditation helps the mind think reasonable. But the test about fairness yes we all want money, but is it really fair to reject the money and get none? I meditated once it feels really good and i was refreshed for the rest of the day.

  24. #24 Ashley P
    April 27, 2011

    This post is very interesting. I think meditation is rational; I would rather use meditation for pain. But I do believe that meditation would make you think different because you would think about a lot of things differently. Even though the tests that were ran for research I don’t think they were very accurate but they did have very good explanations of why meditation is rational. But a lot of people probably use meditation in several different ways.

  25. #25 Psycasm
    April 27, 2011

    Could you cite links for the relationship between meditation and prayer?

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