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

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Researchers tested the effects of a five-minute mindfulness intervention

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

9 thoughts on “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.

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  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.

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  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 http://www.meditation-download.com. 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.

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  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: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncovering-Mindfulness-Paul-Mudd-ebook/dp/B00SMW7CMM/ 🤓

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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