By Emily Reynolds
Mindfulness – basically the practice of being “present” in the moment and paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings – has experienced a boom in recent years. In the US, the mindfulness business will be valued at $ 2 billion by next year, while in the UK the number of downloads for digital meditation offers like Headspace and Calm has increased.
But is mindfulness all that matters? While it certainly has its merits, some argue that it encourages blind acceptance of the status quo and leads us so deep into us that we forget about the rest of the world. In a new preprint PsyArxivMichael Poulin and colleagues at New York University in Buffalo also find that mindfulness can reduce prosocial behavior – at least for those who see themselves as independent from others.
The first study was to investigate the effects of mindfulness on prosocial activity and, in particular, whether it depends on a person’s “self-construction”. In short, when someone has an independent self-construct they see the self as separate from others rather than thinking more collectively and conceiving of themselves as part of a larger group.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, one focused on mindfulness meditation and the other focused on control meditation in the form of wandering thoughts. Those in a state of mindfulness listened to a tape designed to evoke mindfulness through mindful breathing, while those in a state of wandering were instructed to “let their minds wander and think freely without having to concentrate on anything special ”.
After listening to the tapes, participants read about a local poverty and homelessness charity before being asked whether or not to stuff envelopes in support of the organization. Participants who chose to participate were allowed to do so for as long as they wanted. The team also measured participants’ self-construction by asking them to indicate how much they identified with friends, family, and larger groups versus how much they saw themselves as independent.
Most participants (84%) filled out at least a few envelopes after the task, although the number varied significantly – some filled up to 158, others just one. People who participated in mindfulness meditation stuffed 15% more envelopes than those who did control mediation – if they had an interdependent self-construction. But for those with independent self-constructions, mindfulness decreased the number of filled envelopes by 15%.
The second study repeated the first: however, this time the team tried to manipulate the participants’ self-construction. Participants were asked to go through a paragraph where all pronouns were selected. In the independent condition, the participants selected singular pronouns (“I went to town “) and chose plural pronouns in the interdependent state (“we went to town ”).
Since the second study took place online, participants were not asked to stuff envelopes but instead signed up (or not) for slots to chat online with alumni donors and request financial support for the same charity. And similar to the results of the first study, those who were primed with independent self-construction were less likely to volunteer after listening to the mindfulness exercise, while those who were in an interdependent state saw an increased likelihood of to volunteer after the mindfulness task.
Other research has found similar results; For example, a 2017 study found that mindfulness didn’t have the empathetic benefits that many of its followers had claimed, at least in those with high narcissistic traits. This latter finding seems to be crucial: as in this study, mindfulness may not reduce empathy or prosocial behavior across the board, but only when combined with certain personality types. After all, interdependent participants saw one increase no decrease in prosocial behavior.
Developing a more nuanced view of the benefits of mindfulness could therefore be one way to deal with this problem. After the meteoric rise, mindfulness has often been positioned as a panacea, not just for anxiety or other mental illnesses, but in other areas as well: productivity, creativity, personal relationships, and certain traits or habits. Rather than treating it as a wholesale good, it may be better to understand when mindfulness can really be useful – and most importantly, for whom.
– Mind your own business? Mindfulness decreases the prosocial behavior of people with independent self-constructions [this paper is a preprint, meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles