Mindfulness Can Make Independent-Minded People Less Likely To Help Others

By Emily Reynolds

Mindfulness — in basic terms, the practice of being “present” in the moment and paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings — has seen something of a boom over the last few years. In the United States, the mindfulness business is set to reach a value of $2 billion by next year, while in the United Kingdom, lockdown saw a spike in downloads for digital meditation offerings such as Headspace and Calm. 

But is mindfulness all it’s cracked up to be? While it certainly has its benefits, some argue that it encourages blind acceptance of the status quo, taking us so far into ourselves that we forget the rest of the world. In a new preprint on PsyArxiv, Michael Poulin and colleagues from New York’s University at Buffalo also find that mindfulness can decrease prosocial behaviours — at least for those who see themselves as independent from others.

The first study was designed to look at the impact of mindfulness on prosocial activity, and in particular whether this depends on a person’s “self-construal”. In short, if someone has an independent self-construal they see the self as separate from others, rather than thinking more collectively and conceptualising themselves as part of a wider group.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, one oriented around mindfulness meditation, and the other focusing on a control meditation in the form of mind wandering. Those in the mindfulness condition listened to a tape designed to induce mindfulness through mindful breathing, while those in the mind wandering condition were instructed to “let your mind wander and think freely without needing to focus hard on anything in particular”.

After listening to the tapes, participants read about a local poverty and homelessness charity, before being asked whether or not they wanted to stuff envelopes in support of the organisation. Participants who decided to take part were left to do so for as long as they wanted. The team also measured participants’ self-construal by asking them to indicate how much they identified with friends, family, and wider groups compared to how much they thought of themselves as independent.

Most participants (84%) stuffed at least some envelopes after the task, though the number varied significantly — some stuffed up to 158, while others did just one. People who participated in the mindfulness meditation stuffed 15% more envelopes than those who did the control mediation — if they had an interdependent self-construal. But for those with independent self-construals, mindfulness decreased the number of envelopes stuffed by 15%.

The second study replicated the first: this time, however, the team attempted to manipulate participants’ self-construal. Participants were asked to go through a paragraph selecting all of the pronouns. In the independent condition, participants selected singular pronouns (“I went to the city”) and in the interdependent condition, they selected plural pronouns (“we went to the city”).

As the second study took place online, participants were not asked to stuff envelopes, but instead to sign up (or not) for time slots to chat online with alumni donors to request financial support for the same charity. And similar to the results of the first study, those primed with independent self-construal were less likely to volunteer after listening to the mindfulness exercise, while those in the interdependent condition saw an increased likelihood of volunteering after the mindfulness task.

Other research has found similar results; one 2017 study, for example, found that mindfulness did not have the empathy-boosting benefits that many of its adherents had claimed, at least in those high in narcissistic traits. This latter finding seems key: as in this study, it may not be that mindfulness decreases empathy or prosocial behaviours across the board, but only in combination with particular personality types. After all, interdependent participants saw an increase in prosocial behaviours, not a decrease.

Developing a more nuanced view of the benefits of mindfulness, then, might be one way of dealing with this issue. Following its meteoric rise, mindfulness has often been positioned as a panacea, not only for anxiety or other mental health conditions but in other areas, too: productivity, creativity, personal relationships, and particular traits or habits. Rather than treating it as a wholesale good, however, it may be better to understand when mindfulness might be truly beneficial — and, importantly, for whom.

Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construals [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 a staff writer at BPS Research Digest