Brief mindfulness training does not foster empathy, and can even make narcissists worse

By Emma Young

Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?

In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.

Anna Ridderinkhof, at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleagues divided 161 adult volunteers in three groups. Each completed questionnaires assessing their levels of narcissistic and also autistic traits. It’s already known that people who score highly on narcissism (who feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges and want to be admired) tend to experience less “affective empathy”. They aren’t as likely to share the emotional state of another person. People who score highly on autistic traits have no problem with affective empathy, but tend to show impairments in “cognitive empathy”. They find it harder to work out what other people are feeling.

One group spent five minutes in a guided mindfulness meditation, in which they were encouraged to focus on the physical sensations of breathing, while observing any thoughts, without judging them. The second group took part in a relaxation exercise (so any effects of stress relief alone could be examined). People in the control group were invited to let their minds wander, and to be immersed in their thoughts and feelings.

After these exercises, the researchers tested the volunteers’ propensity to feel cognitive empathy, via the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which involves identifying emotions from photographs of people’s eyes, and they also tested their affective empathy, by analysing how much emotional concern they showed toward a player who was socially rejected in a ball game.

There is some debate about whether a greater capacity for empathy would be helpful for most people. Some researchers, such as Professor Tania Singer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, even suggest that an “excess” of empathy explains what’s often termed “burnout” in members of caring professions, such as nurses. But Ridderinkhof’s team predicted that mindfulness training would improve empathy in the volunteers who needed it most: in people with high levels of autistic or narcissistic traits.

It didn’t. While there was no overall effect on empathy in the mindfulness group, further analysis revealed that, compared with the control and relaxation groups combined, non-narcissists who completed the mindfulness exercise did show a slight improvement specifically in cognitive empathy, but for narcissistic people, their cognitive empathy was actually reduced. For the people who scored highly on autistic traits, meanwhile, there was no effect on mind-reading accuracy, though there were intriguing signs of greater prosocial behaviour, indicated by an increase in the number of passes of the ball to socially excluded individuals.

Since volunteers were encouraged not to judge any thoughts they had during the mindfulness meditation, this might indeed have helped non-narcissists let go of self-critical thoughts, allowing them to think more about the mental states of others, the researchers suggest. “By contrast, it may have ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self-aggrandising thoughts.” As a result, they may have thought even less about the mental states of others.

Critics may argue that a single five-minute mindfulness meditation exercise is simply not enough, and that improvements in empathy – in non-narcissists, at least – might perhaps show up with longer sessions. While the research team thinks this is worth exploring, there is evidence from earlier studies (that lacked a proper control group) that five-minute sessions can increase accuracy on a mind-reading test, for example. It was reasonable to opt for a brief session in this study, they argue.

Future research might also investigate whether alternative approaches – perhaps training the related concept of “compassion” (which involves “feeling for” rather than “feeling with” a person in psychological pain, and is advocated by Singer) might help narcissists behave more pro-socially.

Does mindfulness meditation increase empathy? An experiment

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

21 thoughts on “Brief mindfulness training does not foster empathy, and can even make narcissists worse”

  1. There is so much wrong with this study, or its conclusions. Five minutes mindfulness is not mindfulness. Also, empathy or compassion meditation focuses specifically on empathy or compassion and not on breathing and you wouldn’t expect the same effects.

  2. Is this some sort of spoof? This is very much like testing to see if lifting weights improves strength by testing people straight after the gym session. It takes effort to meditate, and the physical brain changes occur during sleep, during rest.

  3. What a foolish study. And I use the term study loosely. But it does make good clickbait.I have been involved in mind/body research and practice since 1977. I have been recommending meditation and mindfulness to my psychotherapy practice clients for almost 4 decades. Mindfulness, by its very nature, is about paying attention to the problems and issues that must be addressed including narcissism. But sometimes it takes a good guide, teacher or therapist to assist. Those practicing mindfulness can also be guided to enhancing empathy if the instructor knows what they are doing. Obviously, those conducting this study did not. I see so much misunderstanding about mindfulness and meditation. Maybe those who criticize should do a bit more research and also experience it themselves for a while.

    Often it is helpful to have some instruction for meditation. For those who are not in a position to take a meditation course I strongly suggest a short and effective guided meditation audio by Jon Shore available at Meditation 1 or Meditation 2. Meditation and mindfulness require practice like any other exercise. But the benefits are well worth the small amount of effort involved. Also, learning meditation does not require a large financial investment. Quality is not equal to the cost of the course or learning program. Just find a meditation technique that is comfortable and practice it every day. It is actually very simple.

  4. I of course beg to differ. As Aristotle so wisely suggested a couple of millennia ago, ‘Nothing to excess’ & as Hegel wrote a couple of centuries ago, ‘The outcome decides the title’. With a lot of research it all rather depends on where the funds are coming from and what the funders agenda is. Google Mindfulness, there’s a lot of academic research and evidence to the contrary of this piece, with a lot of big names on the pro-side.

    And as another comment succinctly puts it – 5 mins isn’t Mindfulness.

    I wrote extensively about Mindfulness for The Huffington Post, Thrive Global and a range of professional and academic journals, & everything you need to know from the universal to the particular, the theory to the practical, and the personal to the professional, is deconstructed and laid out for the academic, the curious, the just mildly interested, or even the I couldn’t give a fig, here: 🤓

  5. Like a lot of errors in this field mindfulness does not aim to increase empathy, but compassion. The difference being as Richard Davidson and Tania Singer’s/Matthieu Riccard’s work shows empathy is not a sustainable meditative practice as it is too exhausting for the mind to enter someone else’s suffering. Rather compassion is practical in needing to try to relieve someone’s suffering, whilst witnessing their distress.They have very different brain correlates.
    I have attended mindfulness workshops that are often attended by narcissists. It obviously would attract them and probably increase their narcissism. Contemplative neuroscience is a relatively new research field and certainly Mindfulness will not be a panacea for all, but these things need to to ironed out in time.

  6. I doubt if this weak study should have been reported. It would be a pity if anyone were put off mindfulness as a result. I am not a psychologist but when I instruct people in mindfulness I find that it takes a couple of weeks (10 minutes a day) for newcomers to become aware of the beneficial changes.

  7. This is a shockingly written article and title which is grossly biased and in places untruthful. I feel like there is a strong urge/backlash at the moment to try to bring mindfulness down a notch or two as it is so ubiquitous and this is very ugly journalism.

    * we already know that different therapy modalities can increase narcisitic traits in narcisists and understand why
    * the article says that the 5 minutes of mindfulness did improve non-narcissts empathy yet the title says the opposite
    * 5 minutes of mindfulness is not much of a ‘dose’ and when I read the title I was expecting it to have been measured after at least an 8 week programme
    * what this study and article are really saying is that ‘relating to yourself by sitting quietly and experiencing your sensations without judgement has no benefit for increasing empathy, which doesn’t make any sense from my own experience and would undermine what all therapy modalities are trying to achieve.

    This article should be re-written in a more balanced way or taken down.

  8. Ouch, someone felt the sting, 101% of which “work” with mindfulness. I wonder how long this pseudoscience-boom is going to last? Feng Shui I could live with, but here these profets of placebo, peddlers of snake-oil inflate their own egos and prey on the weak. Unicorn therapy, angel therapy, mindfulness, .. another day another dollar.

    1. It is a pity that mindfulness has become such a fad. It has encouraged a growing market of interest a view that change comes quickly after brief spells of meditation. It is hardly likely to cure narcissism on its own.the article talks of non judgement of thoughts. The idea that people who carry out mindfulness don’t have values or ethical judgements is not correct. You meditate and don’t judge each thought mainly because our minds are producing all types of thoughts so you become aware of these thoughts. It is a problem that in the mass produced mindfulness courses including psychology that we would expect people to practice it. Too often people are using it with others when they do not practice it yourself. Mindfulness is not a technique although you can teach some. marines and soldiers practising mindfulness but their values might be different from a Tibetan monk. mindfulness is not a non judgmental activity without values.

  9. To begin with, unless a specific mindfulness intervention were to be directed at people with a narcissistic personality, the in-depth orientation were high light this and such individuals would be directed to an appropriate service. That is no invited to take a course, for their own, and other participants’ sake .
    To be honest, I am so fed up with such studies as this. I speak as a published experimental psychologist, ex lecturer – presently honorary fellow at Goldsmiths. Now a qualified MBSR teacher and researcher (currently engaged with Prof Memon of Royal Holloway) and have an individual study underway.
    I believe that it is the usual practice to ‘read the literature’. That is actually read it, the methodology common to the studies. Then according to Andy Young (if memory serves) one item is changed, tested, examine the results, change one item, continuing in that vein. However, such scientific rigger goes by the board when being published in the BPS Digest. This is a shame because it brings our profession into disrepute.
    I have previously complained to the editor at the lack of rigger in mindfulness studies, they now no long ask me to review submissions so I don’t usually read the Digest. However, now my time is taken up with other academics advising me of the rubbish studies reported here!
    The paper says there has been “Surprisingly, the impact of mindfulness on empathy has rarely been investigated experimentally”, then proceeds to site multiple studies since 2004. Then two studies with 5 & 15 minute “mindfulness training” are sited. This is where all of these studies fall down. First define the set interpretation of “mindfulness training”, the studies reporting 5 & 15 minute “mindfulness training” are actually referring to focused attention, with some added instructions to which participants may, or may not adhere, no data or self reports are reported.
    14% of participants had previously engaged with “mindfulness”, was this previous experiments, and 8 week course, trained to teach? The practice used employed a script from Williams and Penman (2011) “… Participants were invited to sit in an upright position that supports them to be open and alert, and then to bring their attention to the breath and the bodily sensations that come with breathing …” However, this mediation is for week 4 of the 8 week course. Thus, participants would have had more material, 4 group sessions and email support during this time.
    Many researchers and practitioners of MBSR/CT accept weakness in capturing the full effects of 8 week programs, and international research continues. As an experimental psychologist – “show me the data” has always be my response to claims for or against …. However, it feels as though we must now return to teaching students, start with the literature review and CONTROL the methodology.

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