Study finds being exposed to Buddhist concepts reduces prejudice and increases prosociality

Have you ever wondered why Buddhists seem so peaceful?

They seem to emphasize the interconnection between everyone and advocate for peace and compassion at all times.

Yet recent research is pointing to a different reason for why Buddhists are so peaceful.

Buddhism contains a variety of teachings and practices – such as meditation – which are intended to help individuals develop a more open-minded and compassionate personality.

Now researchers are suggesting that it’s not the practices that lead to feelings of peace, but also the words themselves.

That’s right, just being exposed to Buddhist concepts is enough to undermine prejudice towards others and develop a more open-minded and compassionate personality.

In three experiments involving 355 people, researchers found that just being exposed to words related to Buddhism could “automatically active prosociality and tolerance, in particular among people with socio-cognitive open-mindedness.”

The study adds to research related to “priming”, which refers to when just being exposed to certain words or concepts changes the way people think or behave.

The study was published in the April issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

According to the research paper, when Westerners familiar with Buddhism read religious words like “Dharma” and “Nirvana” – which they were exposed to believing they were completing a word puzzle – they reported increased feelings of compassion towards different people when compared to being exposed to non-religious words such as “freedom”.

That’s right. Just being exposed to Buddhist words increased their feelings of compassion, even when they didn’t know this was the purpose of being exposed to the words.

Westerners with a Christian background also became more tolerant when exposed to Buddhist concepts. However, this only occurred when people already had a predisposition for valuing the welfare of all people and who already didn’t like authoritarianism.

The tests also showed that participants being exposed to these concepts became less prejudiced against Africans and Muslims than those exposed only to Christian concepts.

Westerners with a Christian background also became more social when exposed to Buddhist concepts. They didn’t become more social when exposed to Christian concepts, even they were already disposed to such concepts as they are already Christian.

Participants didn’t need to believe in Buddhism in order to be positively affected by the concepts. It was enough that they knew a little about Buddhism.

Interestingly, being exposed to Buddhist concepts resulted in greater tolerance and compassion than being exposed to Christian concepts.

The researchers wrote:

“To conclude, we think that this work provides, for the first time, experimental evidence in favor of the idea that in both the East and the West, across people from both Christian and Eastern Asian religious traditions, Buddhist concepts automatically activate positive social behavioral outcomes, that is, prosociality and low prejudice, in particular among people with personal dispositions of socio-cognitive openness.”

They continued:

“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, and these ideals seem particularly efficient (in leading to action) for people with relevant personality dispositions.”

In conclusion:

“Emotional (compassion) and cognitive (tolerance of contradictions) mechanisms explain, to some extent, how Buddhist concepts, across cultural and religious contexts, enhance prosocial and tolerant attitudes and behavioral tendencies. Religious and cultural characteristics ‘travel’ and influence people’s attitudes and behavior in a globalized world even at the implicit level of consciousness.”