Can Mindfulness Make You Selfish?

Mindfulness is a multibillion-dollar industry. In the United States, mindfulness app downloads earn billions of dollars annually, and their popularity continues to grow. Apart from what individual practitioners may have on their phones, schools, prisons, and almost one-fifth of all employers now offer some type of mindfulness training.

Mindfulness and meditation have been linked to decreased stress and anxiety, as well as an increase in emotional well-being. Numerous studies substantiate these benefits. However, how can mindfulness alter a spectrum of human activities – so-called prosocial acts – that have the potential to assist or benefit others? What happens when researchers focus their attention on the social impacts of mindfulness rather than on its personal effects?

Within the realm of prosocial behaviors, a new publication from researchers at the University of Buffalo illustrates the unanticipated drawbacks of mindfulness while also providing simple strategies for mitigating those repercussions – all of which have practical implications for mindfulness training.

“Mindfulness has the potential to make you selfish,” says Michael Poulin, PhD, associate professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and primary author of the article. “It is a qualified statement, but it is also true.

“Mindfulness improved prosocial behavior in persons who have a more interconnected view of themselves. However, mindfulness actually diminished prosocial conduct in persons who see themselves as more independent.”

The findings appear counterintuitive in light of pop culture’s unambiguous endorsement of mindfulness as a desirable mental state. However, the lesson here is not one that undermines the efficacy of mindfulness.

“That is an exaggeration,” says Poulin, a stress, coping, and prosocial engagement expert. “While research indicates that mindfulness is effective, our study demonstrates that it is a tool, not a prescription, requiring more than a plug-and-play approach to avoid potential problems.”

The findings will be published in the journal Psychological Science in the near future.

According to Poulin, the autonomous versus interdependent mindsets are a recurrent subject in social psychology. Certain individuals think of themselves in single or self-contained terms: “I do this.” While others consider themselves to be numerous or interdependent: “We do this.”

Additionally, there are cultural distinctions stacked on top of these perspectives. Those in Western countries tend to view themselves as self-sufficient, but people in East Asian countries view themselves as interdependent. Poulin speculates that because mindfulness techniques originated in East Asian countries, they may be more overtly prosocial in such situations. In Western cultures, practicing mindfulness removes such context.

“Despite these individual and cultural differences, each person is also unique, and each human at any point in time can think of themselves in either singular or plural terms,” Poulin explains.

The researchers, who included Shira Gabriel, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UB, C. Dale Morrison and Esha Naidu, both UB graduate students, and Lauren M. Ministero, PhD, a former UB graduate student who is now a senior behavioral scientist at the MITRE Corporation, conducted their study using a two-experiment series.

They first assessed the independence versus interdependence of 366 individuals before offering mindfulness education or a mind wandering exercise to the control group. Prior to departing, attendees were informed about volunteer opportunities with a charitable organization stuffing envelopes.

In this trial, mindfulness resulted in a decline in prosocial conduct among those who were typically self-sufficient.

Rather of just measuring a trait, the following experiment urged 325 participants to lean one way or the other using a quick but powerful activity that tends to make people conceive of themselves in independent or interdependent ways.

The mindfulness training and control methods were identical to those in the previous trial, but participants were then asked if they would sign up to talk online with potential contributors in order to assist a charitable organization in raising funds.

While mindfulness decreased the likelihood of volunteering by 33% for those primed for independence, it increased the likelihood of volunteering to the same organization by 40% for those prepared for interdependence. The findings imply that mixing mindfulness with instructions on how to encourage people to think about themselves in terms of their relationships and communities while engaging in mindfulness activities may enable them to experience both personal and social benefits.

“We need to consider how to maximize the benefits of mindfulness,” Poulin says. “We must understand how to use the tool.”


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