Mindfulness is big business. Mindfulness app downloads generate billions of dollars a year in the United States and their popularity continues to grow. In addition to what individual practitioners might have on their phones, schools and prisons as well as one in five employers currently offer some form of mindfulness training.
Mindfulness and meditation are associated with reducing stress and anxiety, while increasing emotional well-being. Many scholarships support these benefits. But how does mindfulness affect the range of human behaviors – the so-called prosocial behaviors – that can potentially help or benefit other people? What happens when research examines the social effects of mindfulness from the outside rather than the inside of its personal effects?
It’s in the realm of prosocial behaviors that a new paper from researchers at the University of Buffalo demonstrates the surprising drawbacks of mindfulness, while offering easy ways to minimize these consequences – both of which have practical implications for mindfulness training.
“Mindfulness can make you selfish,” says Michael Poulin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at UB College of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the article. “It’s a nuanced fact, but it’s also true.
“Mindfulness has increased prosocial actions for people who tend to see themselves as more interdependent. However, for people who tend to see themselves as more independent, mindfulness has actually decreased prosocial behavior.”
The results seem contradictory given the pop culture of mindfulness as an unequivocal positive mental state. But the message here is not one that dismantles the effectiveness of mindfulness.
“That would be an oversimplification,” says Poulin, an expert in stress, coping and prosocial engagement. “Research suggests mindfulness works, but this study shows it’s a tool, not a prescription, that requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls.”
The results will be published in a future issue of the journal. Psychological science.
Poulin says that independent and interdependent mentalities represent a central theme in social psychology. Some people see themselves in singular or independent terms: “I am doing this”. While others think of themselves in plural or interdependent terms: “We do this”.
There are also cultural differences superimposed on these perspectives. People in Western countries most often see themselves as independent, while people in East Asian countries see themselves more often as interdependent. Mindfulness practices originated in East Asian countries, and Poulin hypothesizes that mindfulness may be more clearly prosocial in these contexts. Practicing mindfulness in Western countries removes this context.
“Despite these individual and cultural differences, there is also variability within each person, and any individual at different points in time can think of themselves in both directions, singular or plural,” explains Poulin.
The researchers, who included Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at UB, C. Dale Morrison and Esha Naidu, both graduate students from UB, and Lauren M. Ministero, PhD, graduate student from UB at the time of the research who is now a senior behavior scientist at MITER Corporation, used a series of two experiments for their study.
First, they measured the characteristic levels of independence of 366 participants from interdependence, before providing mindful instruction or a mind-wandering exercise to the control group. Before leaving, participants were made aware of volunteer opportunities by filling out envelopes for a charity.
In this experiment, mindfulness led to a decrease in prosocial behavior in those who tended to be independent.
In the following experiment, instead of having a stroke just measured, 325 participants were encouraged to lean in one way or another by engaging in a brief but effective exercise that tends to get people to think of themselves in independent or interdependent terms.
The mindfulness training and checking procedures were the same as in the first experiment, but in this case, participants were then asked to register to chat online with potential donors to raise funds for a charity.
Mindfulness made people prepared for independence 33% less likely to volunteer, but it led to a 40% increase in the likelihood of volunteering in the same organization among those who were ready to volunteer. interdependence. The results suggest that pairing mindfulness with instructions on how to get people to think of themselves in terms of relationships and communities when engaging in mindfulness exercises can allow them to see both results. positive personal and social.
“We need to think about how to get the most out of mindfulness,” Poulin says. “We need to know how to use the tool.”