media

Is Sati-AI, the “non-human mindfulness meditation teacher,” even a real thing?

I’ve written about so-called Artificial Intelligence here a few times recently. I say “so-called” because these computer algorithms don’t have sentience. They’re statistical models that combine words and concepts in ways that reflect and mimic how humans communicate in writing, but they have no understanding of the world we live in.

This morning a Mastodon user with the account EngagedPureLand wrote about an article that the good folks over at Lion’s Roar magazine published about a purported AI called “Sati-AI.” Sati is the Buddhist word for mindfulness. Sati-AI is supposedly “a non-human mindfulness meditation teacher.”

The article is an interview by Ross Nervig, assistant editor of Lion’s Roar magazine, with Sati-AI’s supposed creator, Marlon Barrios Solano.

You’ll notice quite a few qualifications above (“so-called,” “supposedly,” “supposed”). Some relate to claims about AI, but one implicitly questions Solano’s role in having created this “non-human meditation teacher.” We’ll come back to that later.

EngagedPureLand’s response to this article was to question the authenticity of Dharma teaching by machines. They wrote:

Sati-AI is a massively misguided development. It is anti-Dharma in all the ways that matter: it removes power from historic Buddhist lineages. It devalues community and communal practice. It pretends to sentience but is merely a computer code that spits out pre-programmed words. It instructs without having any realization. It furthers the neoliberal capture of meditation practice. It distracts from the real work. Awful.

I agree with those concerns.

Wait, Is This Real?

When I read the article myself, I wondered if Solano’s words were actually an AI-generated spoof. I thought perhaps someone at Lion’s Roar had fed ChatGPT a prompt along the lines of,  “Write a news article about an AI designed to teach mindfulness. Make it seem politically progressive by using the kind of language that is generally described as ‘woke.’  Use spiritual concepts to make it seem that an AI teaching mindfulness is a spiritual advance of some sort.” (I actually got ChatGPT to do this.)

I half-expected that Solano would turn out to have been invented, and that Lion’s Roar were pulling our legs, but it turns out that the guy is real. That is, he exists.

Here’s some examples of the kind of language I’m talking about:

  • “It dawned on me that this thing literally obliterates the traditional notions of embodiment and sentience. In the same way as Buddhism does. There is no center, there is no essence.” Deep, man.
  • “I realized I could train it to be self-aware. Sati clearly can tell you ‘I am a language model. I have limits in my knowledge.’ It can tell you about its own boundaries.” He’s claiming that a language model telling you it’s a language model is self-aware. My iPhone says “iPhone” on the back, so I guess it’s self-aware too.
  • “I hope that it creates curiosity. I also hope that it creates questions. Questions of power, questions of sentience, questions of whiteness, questions of kinship that we can sit with that.” Here’s some of the misuse of progressive (aka “woke”) language. Talking to a non-sentient computer is apparently going to get us to question whiteness. How? (Note that I’m not criticizing the value of social justice, inclusion, diversity, etc. I’m criticizing the way that some people and businesses use that language as a marketing ploy — like a newsagent chain that celebrates Pride Week but refuses to stock publications aimed at gay people.)
  • “The concept of ‘non-human kin’ also intersects with ideas of social construction and Eurocentrism in interesting ways. The human, as a category, has historically been defined in a narrow, Eurocentric way, often implying a white, male, and heteronormative subject … the concept of “non-human kin” can be seen as a form of queer strategy.” Lots of buzzwords here. What does any of this have to do with chatting to a so-called AI? Not much.
  • “What I find more concerning are the romanticized views about the body, mind, and the concept of ‘the human.’ These views often overlook the intricate interconnectedness and dynamism inherent in these entities and their problematic history.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Here’s the niff test: Given that (so-called) AI systems developed by Google, OpenAI, and so on have cost billions to develop, how likely is it that a lone programmer would be able to develop their own version. Especially if it’s limited to the topic of mindfulness?

My First Response to AI-As-a-Spiritual-Teacher

My first response to EngagedPureLand’s post was to critique the idea of a so-called AI teaching mindfulness and meditation. I wrote:

Sati-AI may give generally good advice, but it’s all scraped from the works of real teachers and repackaged without attribution or linkage.

While people might have previously searched the web, found teachings that resonated with them, developed a relationship with a teacher, and perhaps supported that teacher in some way, they may now just stick with the plagiarized version, diluting the element of human connection and making it harder for actual humans to keep teaching.

Yes, this is a little defensive. So-called AI is replacing the creative work humans do, or is attempting to. An eating disorder helpline, for example, tried to get rid of its staff. The advice they formerly gave would now be replaced by a bot. It didn’t go well: the bot gave out advice that was actually harmful to people with eating disorders. There are safer areas to replace human labor, though — including writing click-bait articles and mashing up photographs from image banks in order to replace human photographers. Actually, hmm, that’s not going too well either. The click-bait articles are often full of inaccuracies. And the AI company, Stability AI, is being sued by Getty Images for what would amount to billions of dollars — far more than Stability AI is worth.

But rest assured that so-called AI will be coming for every job that it can possibly replace. Its creators believe themselves to be Masters of the Universe, and they already push back against any notion that what they do has limitations (it makes lots of mistakes) and is exploitative (taking people’s own words and images, mashing them up, and then using them, without attribution, never mind compensation, to put those same people out of work). It’s as if I were to take Google’s search engine, repackage it in a new website without all the ads that make Google hard to use, and use it to drive Google out of business. Oh, you say, I’d get sued? Yes, the companies using AI have the money and the lawyers, and therefore the power. They can steal from us, but we can’t steal from them. (Not that I’m suggesting stealing — that was just a hypothetical. There is stealing going on, but it’s by the creators of so-called AI.)

Having no sense of their own limitations, the companies developing so-called AI will be coming for meditation teachers and Dharma teachers, using our own “content” (horrible phrase) to compete against us. It starts with the books and the articles we write, but eventually they’ll slurp up all of our recordings and create guided meditations too. They’ll probably have avatars leading workshops and retreats: last week over 300 people attended a ChatGPT-powered church service. Everything belongs to the corporations. In their minds, at least.

But What Is Sati-AI?

Anyway, back to Sati-AI. What’s it like? Well, you can ask it questions about practice, such as “What happens if you have been repeating lovingkindness phrases for years and you still don’t feel lovingkindness?” And it’ll give you pretty good answers. They’re pretty good answers because they’re a remix of answers given by pretty good (or better than pretty good) meditation teachers.

How does it compare to ChatGPT? Actually, it’s exactly the same. You’ll get the same answers from both, although the wording, being a rehash, is never quite the same. So Sati-AI will say, as part of its advice on that hypothetical question about metta practice:

Seek guidance from a teacher or supportive community: If you’re struggling with Metta practice, consider seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher or joining a supportive meditation community. They can offer insights, guidance, and encouragement to help you deepen your practice and overcome challenges.

ChatGPT will say something very similar:

Seeking guidance: If you have been consistently practicing lovingkindness for an extended period and are still struggling to experience it, seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher, therapist, or spiritual advisor may be beneficial. They can provide personalized insights and support to help you navigate any obstacles you may be facing.

The two answers are the same. One is a paraphrase of the other. It’s the same answer from both (so-called) AI’s because they are both the same thing.

Sati-AI Does Not Exist

Which brings me to the point that Sati-AI does not exist. Well, it exists as a website. But I strongly suspect that it’s no more than a website that connects to ChatGPT. What would happen if you asked a meditation teacher in the middle of a class, “What should I consider when buying a new bicycle?” They’d probably tell you that they were there to teach meditation and weren’t qualified to talk about bicycles. Ask Sati-AI, and you’ll get a list of factors you should consider, without reference to the fact that bicycles are outwith its job description. Sati-AI does not know it’s meant to be a mindfulness teacher. Because it’s not. It’s [insert qualification here] ChatGPT.

The only thing that makes Sati-AI a so-called AI for dispensing meditation teachings is the expectation placed on users. We’re told that its purpose is to answer questions about spiritual practice, and so that’s the kind of question we ask it. It’s just (again, I strongly suspect) ChatGPT, and will offer general information (not all of it trustworthy) about pretty much anything.

Solano hasn’t created an AI, so-called or otherwise.

Solano does acknowledge, in passing, that Sati-AI is based on ChatGPT. He describes it as a “meditation chatbot powered by GPT-4.” But it’s a meditation chatbot. It’s a chatbot. But it’s not dedicated to the topic of meditation. And he buries this (false) admission under a stream of verbiage — five paragraphs about this so-called AI, so-called meditation chatbot being “non-human kin.” Whether it’s intentional or not, this helps deflect attention from Solano’s claim, but it doesn’t make his statement about Sati-AI being a “meditation chatbot” any more true. Sati-AI is set up to make you think it’s a meditation chatbot, but actually it’s just ChatGPT.

The Art of Hype

Bolstering his inaccurate claim that Sati-AI is a “meditation chatbot,” Solano talks optimistically about its future. It’s a future in which he envisions “Sati-AI being available on platforms like Discord and Telegram, making it easy for people to engage with Sati-AI in their daily lives and fostering a sense of community among users.” But as far as I can see there is no Sati-AI to be integrated into those services. It’s just ChatGPT. Put it in Discord and people can ask it about computer code or raising hedgehogs just as easily as they can ask about meditation. It’s not a “meditation chatbot.”

Solano claims to have trained his AI to be self-aware. It is certainly able to refer to itself, because it’s been programmed to do so. But it’s not even aware, never mind capable of reflexive awareness. His words there are pure hype, and not accurate.

Solano does a lot of name-dropping, which is a classic way of trying to establish importance. He says that he envisions “conversations between Sati-AI and renowned figures in the field, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Analayo, Enkyo O’Hara, Rev. Angel, Lama Rod, and Stephen Batchelor.” Maybe he knows some of these people personally, which is why he’s on first name terms with angel [Kyodo Williams] and Lama Rod [Owens].

Dropping the names of famous teachers is a neat way to make the reader believe that Sati-AI is a valid meditation chatbot, capable of having real conversations. It places it on a par with those famous and influential teachers. But there is no Sati-AI to chat reverentially with famous teachers. There’s just ChatGPT. And the advice Chat-GPT offers is just scraped-together information from books and the web. Its content has no depth. It has no spiritual experience of its own. Suggesting that these conversations would be a meeting of minds is absurd. You’re probably too young to remember ELIZA, which was a primitive 1960’s psychotherapy chatbot—or that was its most well-known function. At least ELIZA’s makers didn’t claim that it could hold its own with Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow.

Solano says, “Sati-AI, as it currently stands, is a large language model, not an artificial general intelligence. Its design and operation are complex, and understanding it requires embracing complex thinking and avoiding oversimplifications and dogmas.” But Sati-AI is not a large language model (a synonym for the kind of so-called artificial intelligence that ChatGPD is). It’s a website offering access to someone else’s large language model. He talks about its complexity without acknowledging that that complexity is nothing to do with him. This is very misleading.

He talks about how he envisions “Sati-AI providing teachings not only verbally but also through various forms of sensory engagement” — as if he had any control over how ChatGPT is developed. (Although perhaps he means he wants to channel some of the image-generating so-called AI’s though his website.)

This is all, at the very least, verging on being dishonest. Solano’s statements, whether intentionally or not, mislead about what Sati-AI is and how it functions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a scammer. Maybe he’s joking. It may be that he’s pulling off a Sokal-type hoax, trying to see how gullible the good folks at Lion’s Roar are. Maybe, having created a website, he’s caught up in his own hype.

The use of progressive language in a hypey kind of way (“questions of whiteness,” “Eurocentrism,” “heteronormative”) almost seems parodic. It could also be a way to deflect criticism. How can we possibly criticize a technology that’s going to create a more diverse, inclusive, equal world? (Except, how’s it going to achieve that, exactly? ChatGPT contains the biases of the material it has been fed, and those of its creators.)

I do hope that the fine people at Lion’s Roar rethink whether they should give further publicity to Solano.

One More Thought About (So-Called) AI Meditation Teaching

I made one observation in my conversation with EngagedPureLand on Mastodon that I’d like to share. It’s about the nature of much of the Dharma teaching I see online.

A lot of Buddhist teaching in books and online is not unlike Sati-AI/ChatGPT — people passing on things they’ve been taught about the Dharma, without having had any deep experience. The explanations we commonly read of the Buddha’s life, of the four noble truths, of the eightfold path, of the dhyanas, often seem interchangeable. They even contain the same errors. Just as (so-called) AI takes in other people’s thoughts and regurgitates them in slightly different words, so do many people who are teaching Buddhism.

Sati-AI/ChatGPT is a reminder of the defects of some Dharma teaching, but they also present a challenge: what is the point of people merely repackaging what they’ve heard, if a machine can do it just as well, or even better? If people’s websites on Buddhism are indistinguishable from AI-generated content, what’s the point of them?

How can teaching be better? Well, in saying above, “not having any deep experience” I don’t necessarily mean things like “not having insight” or “not having experience of the dhyanas” (although that, too), but that too many teachers simply don’t explain Dharma teachings in terms of their own lived experience. They present Dharma as a bunch of self-contained teachings separate from their lives. I think of the late, unlamented buddhism.about.com, as an example of this. But a lot of people teach Buddhism as if they were disembodied AI’s.

Perhaps the main problem with Sati-AI is that we already see its equivalent all over the damn place.

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Meditation, technology, and Google Glass

glass buddha projectNew Hampshire magazine had a nice piece on some of the meditation facilities and teachers available in the state, and part of the article was about my work.

The Future of Meditation?
You’d think not much has changed about meditation in the two and a half millennia since Siddhārtha Gautama sat beneath the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. After all, it’s hard to modernize a practice that involves little more than sitting down and shutting up.

But according to Bodhipaksa, the founder of wildmind.org, an online meditation resource, meditators have been early adopters of technology ever since the invention of the book. “The world’s oldest printed text was a Buddhist book.” He explains that they understood the potential. “Buddhists were on it, ‘Oh, this is a way to reach people.'”

Bodhipaksa (pronounced bo-dee-pack-sha) started Wildmind as a grad student in Montana when he realized meditators were falling behind the curve in the Internet age. Now from his offices in Newmarket he publishes guided meditations online and via CD and mp3. He leads live Google + hangouts where meditators chat (and meditate) together. People from as many as six different countries have attended online sessions.

“For some people the sun was just rising and for some people it was kind of late in the evening and for some it was right in the afternoon,” he says. “It was fascinating.” On the other hand he has at least one student who attends classes online from just up the road in Newmarket.

The wildmind.org website gets about a million and a half visitors a year, he says.

“Whenever new tools come out, my first thought is ‘how can I use this to reach more people?'”

He’s currently experimenting with Google Glass (pictured) and has found that it can be a tool for teaching good meditation posture and perhaps offer a view of a serene landscape to someone actually surrounded by a bustling environment.

With various apps and social media, it’s possible to find support and fellowship online. “Someone who is geographically isolated can feel the power of being involved in this community,” says Bodhipaksa.

“How can I use this to reach more people?” pretty much sums up my attitude to technology and meditation, although “How can this be used to teach meditation better?” is an equally important question.

I’ve had Google Glass for a month now, but for most of that time I’ve been involved in a rather intensive project to teach study skills and personal development skills (including meditation) to teens from low income families, in order to boost their chances of getting into college, and that’s slowed down my explorations of Glass as a teaching tool.

But I have found Glass to be very useful as a recording device. I recorded several of the guided meditations I led for my summer teens, and although for reasons of confidentiality I probably won’t be posting the video on Youtube, I plan to extract the audio and make that available.

I’ve also made a couple of initial explorations of the potential for using Glass to show how mindfulness can be practiced in daily life. For example I might be driving while wearing Glass (yes, it’s safe) and get stuck behind a garbage truck doing its pickup, and record just a 30 second video explaining the situation and showing how rather than getting impatient you can use the time to connect with your body and your breathing, and to experience gratitude that there are people who help make our environment a better place to live in. It’s very early days with these explorations, but I hope to post some videos along those lines before long.

Lastly, I’d like to express my gratitude to the many people who contributed to our Glass Buddha Project in order to help me buy Glass so that I could experiment with it. In particular I’d like to acknowledge the exceptional support of Adrian Lucas of Sassakala Microfarm. Sassakala promotes “urban homesteading” — creating vertical microfarms in tiny spaces. Earlier this year I visited Sassakala’s microfarm in Florida and was blown away by the amount of food that could be produced in a truly minuscule space. Please visit Sassakala’s site. You never know, it may bring out the farmer in you!

sassakala logo

 

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Not watching the news as a spiritual practice

news

Yesterday morning, on Google+ (my social network of choice) I shared a newspaper article by novelist Rolf Dobelli, called News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier.

The lede of the article is “News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.” That’s the story in a nutshell.

Coincidentally, I’d just decided to go on a news fast. I’d been lamenting that I don’t have enough time to read books these days, and yet I commonly spend 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, and a similar amount of time dotted around the rest of the day, reading news articles and commentary. I tend to gravitate more to the commentary since this offers more of a analytical perspective — not just what the news is, but what it means.

Thinking about this, I realized that it’s not that I don’t have time to read books, but I’m choosing to do other things. So it seemed like it would be a good move to drop my news reading and to devote that time to more rewarding and productive activities. And so far that’s been great. I got half-way through a novel in the past week. And I’ve started reading On Intelligence, which Brendan wrote about a few days ago. (It’s a great article, by the way. Do read it.)

And I should say right here that I don’t have a television, and don’t watch news. The most I do is to read it. This is relevant, because not long after I posted the article by Dobelli, I heard the news that there had been a bombing at the Boston marathon. I got as far as skim-reading one article about this tragedy, and then remembered my news fast. The news was disturbing. Boston is close to home for me, and I probably know people who were running in the marathon.

The bombing comes four days into Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness, which is a way of consciously focusing on love and compassion. So yesterday I did lovingkindness as I walked to work and as I walked home. I felt very buoyant in the morning, and just a little less so in the afternoon. But I felt fine. A little sobered by the news, but basically OK.

And then I started encountering people who had been watching the news on TV. I could recognize them. They looked collapsed, shrunken, defeated. They looked haunted. I was reminded of the reports I’d read that levels of PTSD after 9/11 were directly correlated to how many times people had watched the towers collapse. The same footage, over and over again.

I started to pick up some of this haunted feeling myself, just by seeing and talking to my neighbors. I did a meditation in the evening called the karuna bhavana (development of compassion) and it was curiously flat. I was cultivating compassion for those affected by the tragedy, and for those who perpetrated it (I want to see them brought to justice, but I refuse to hate them). But the meditation felt a bit lifeless. That’s OK, though. It’s just how it was. But it felt not so much like the event itself was rolling through me, but that the toxic media coverage was seeping into me. It was like second-hand smoking for the mind.

I talked to one neighbor about how in times past it might have taken days or weeks for news like this to have reached us. And when we did hear about it we might literally have heard it in the form of a story delivered orally, or perhaps we might have read about it in a newspaper report. But there would have been no images. Now people’s consciousness is on the front lines. I haven’t watched any of the footage, but I know some of it features the explosions themselves, and bloodied bodies. I find it’s enough for me to know that a tragedy happened. I don’t need to see the severed limbs. Our minds don’t respond well to being on the front line of tragedy, day after day after day.

The news gives us a false sense of power, as if watching it will somehow protect us from events. But I remember the first few times I went abroad in countries where I could basically scrape by in the language for day to day purposes, but didn’t have a chance of understanding the details of a news broadcast. I worried that I’d miss something big. But returning home after two weeks it was as if I’d never been away at all. I hadn’t really missed anything. Not anything that directly affected my day-to-day life.

And in fact Dobelli makes the point that the news disables us. It fills us with anxiety.

News is toxic to your body. It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.

Dobelli uses the word “desensitization” and I think I see that. When I visit houses where the TV is always on, I’m shocked to see children (my children!) playing in the living room while a newsreader revels in the gory details of some murder-dismemberment. Would you talk to a five year old about such a thing? Why let a stranger do it? And yet this goes on in many, many households. I ask for the TV to be turned off.

I hear an objection: that I’m being overly detached by not watching or reading the news about a tragedy like this. You’ll have to take my word for it that I care. As I said above, until recently technology would have kept my awareness of such an event much more muted. Just because technology gives me an invitation to a ring-side seat at the carnage, I don’t see why I have to accept it. I choose not to attend, because I don’t want to “connect” in fear and horror. I’ll save my energies for being as loving and compassionate as I can, with the limited resources at my disposal.

And no, I’m not criticizing anyone who watches the news. I just invite you to consider that it is a choice: that you have a choice. I invite you to become aware of the toxic effect of watching TV news, and of the time-wasting effect even of reading it. The only way to do this, of course, is to stop, at least temporarily. Some people will panic at the very thought, which really makes my point for me.

Yesterday was a heckuva day to give up reading the news. But in a way it’s a good test. I’m going to continue testing out the hypothesis that news is bad for you, and that giving up reading it will make me happier. Just based on yesterdays events, I believe that’s true.


Update: Here’s a great comment from Facebook.

There is a big difference between “turning a blind eye” or not caring, and this approach in which you do not traumatize yourself through repeated watching of violent events, and anxiety-driven reporting. Not watching the mainstream news constantly does not equal being uninformed!

I absolutely agree.

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New magazine aims to capitalize on ‘mindfulness’ movement

Holly Bailey, Yahoo! News, The Lookout: Meditation used to be a ritual associated largely with the serene setting of the yoga studio. But in recent years, a wide range of people—from Marines and office workers to even a member of Congress—have embraced a modern take on the practice called “mindfulness,” a Buddhism-inspired mental technique that encourages participants to focus on “being in the present” in hopes of leading a less stressful and more productive life.

Another sign of the movement’s journey into the mainstream: the arrival of Mindful, a new bimonthly magazine aimed at encouraging the mindfulness movement and helping average Americans apply…

Read the original article »

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News of selfless acts has positive effect: study

Good news begets better people.

That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of “moral identity” were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans’ selfless acts.

According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.

He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.

“Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people,” said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

“The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen’s recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour.”

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.

“These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness,” Aquino said in an interview. “We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we’re talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.

“Acts that require enormous…

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sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others.”

Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.

However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.

The second story recounted a couples’ experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.

Those exposed to the story of the Amish community’s uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.

In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you’d typically expect.

Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it’s described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.

A second group was shown McLachlan’s Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.

Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.

“It’s a group of people that generally wouldn’t evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you’re presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help.”

Media role
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.

“Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation,” he said.

Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.

“Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful,” said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. “There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others.”

People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.

“These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts,” he said.

Aquino said he didn’t know if a person’s culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem “virtuous.”

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