Too much self-awareness? Mindfulness can actually make people more selfish

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mindfulness training isn’t just an effective meditation tool, it’s big business in the United States. Apps and other training methods rake in billions of dollars each year and their popularity is continuing to grow. Despite this widespread desire to be more mindful, could these techniques also be making some people more selfish? A new study finds there are some surprising downsides to mindfulness training, especially if you’re a more independent person.

Typically, mindfulness and meditation reduce stress and anxiety. It can also increase emotional well-being. Researchers from the University of Buffalo say around one in five employers now offer some form of mindfulness training to workers.

Despite its good intentions, study authors looked at how this training impacts a range of pro-social behaviors, which can help or benefit others. The study finds that the training, which teaches people to look inwards at their own thoughts and feelings, doesn’t always produce the same results when those individuals look outwardly at others.

Mindfulness can make you selfish,” says Michael Poulin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, in a university release. “It’s a qualified fact, but it’s also accurate.”

“Mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent. However, for people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behavior.”

Mindfulness is ‘a tool, not a prescription’

Poulin says this doesn’t mean the training doesn’t work or won’t create a better mental state for users.

“That would be an oversimplification,” Poulin adds. “Research suggests that mindfulness works, but this study shows that it’s a tool, not a prescription, which requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls.”

The study finds the biggest factor at play here is the difference between independent versus interdependent mindsets. While some people think of themselves in independent terms (like “I do this”), others actually use more plural or interdependent terms (“we do this”).

The most glaring example of this is the difference between Western and East Asian nations. Poulin notes that Westerners typically think of themselves as independent people. In Asia however, the population tends to view their communities as more interdependent.

Since mindfulness practices have their roots in East Asian culture, researchers suspect these techniques have more prosocial benefits in those societies. Western nations practicing mindfulness while maintaining a Western philosophy of life removes the intended 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 either way, in singular or plural terms,” the study author explains.

People grow less charitable, too?

In one experiment, researchers studied 366 people, gauging their characteristic levels of independence versus interdependence. They then gave the group instructions on engaging in a mindfulness or a mind wandering exercise. Before leaving, the team told each person about a volunteer opportunity to stuff envelopes for a charitable organization.

The results reveal mindfulness training led to less prosocial behavior among more independent participants.

In a second test, researchers encouraged 325 people in lean one way or the other by taking part in an exercise that makes people think of themselves as independent or interdependent. The Buffalo team then gave this group the same instructions as the first experiment. However, afterwards, researchers asked participants if they would sign up to chat online with charitable donors.

These results find mindfulness training led those leaning towards independence to be 33 percent less likely to volunteer. On the other hand, those leaning towards interdependence in the exercise were 40 percent more likely to volunteer their time.

Poulin believes this shows that mindfulness training needs to be paired with more instruction into how people can think of themselves in terms of their social circles and communities.

“We have to think about how to get the most out of mindfulness,” Poulin concludes. “We have to know how to use the tool.”

The study is scheduled to appear in the journal Psychological Science.

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