Poulin: Mindfulness meditation may make some Americans more selfish and less generous


By Michael J. Poulin

When Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata travels, he brings water from Japan with him. He says it’s the only way to make truly authentic dashi, the flavorful broth essential to Japanese cuisine. There’s the science to back it up: water in Japan is significantly softer – meaning it contains fewer dissolved minerals – than in many other parts of the world. So when Americans enjoy Japanese food, they probably don’t get the real thing.

This phenomenon is not limited to food. Taking something out of its geographical or cultural context often changes the thing itself.

Take the word “namaste”. In modern Hindi, it is simply a respectful greeting, the equivalent of a formal “hello” appropriate to address one’s elders. But in the United States, its associations with yoga have led many to believe that it is an inherently spiritual word.

Another cultural tradition that has changed over time and space is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an expansive non-judgmental awareness of one’s experiences, often cultivated through meditation.

Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness benefits people who practice it in several ways.

However, very little research has examined its effects on societies, workplaces and communities. As a social psychologist at the University of Buffalo, I wondered if the growing enthusiasm for mindfulness was not neglecting something important: how practicing it might affect others.

A booming market

In the last few years alone, the mindfulness industry has exploded in the United States. Current estimates put the US meditation market, which includes meditation courses, studios, and apps, at around $ 1.2 billion. It is expected to reach over $ 2 billion by 2022.

Hospitals, schools and even prisons teach and promote mindfulness, while more than one in five employers currently offer mindfulness training.

The enthusiasm for mindfulness makes sense: Research shows that mindfulness can reduce stress, increase self-esteem, and decrease symptoms of mental illness.

Given these findings, it’s easy to assume that mindfulness has little to no downside. Employers and the educators promoting it certainly seem to think so. Perhaps they hope that mindfulness will not only make people feel better, but it will also make them better. Simply put, perhaps mindfulness can make people more generous, cooperative, or helpful – all traits that tend to be desirable in employees or students.

Mindfulness migrates

But in reality, there is good reason to doubt that mindfulness, as practiced in the United States, would automatically lead to good results.

In fact, it can do the opposite.

This is because it has been taken out of context. Mindfulness has developed within the framework of Buddhism, where it is intimately linked to spiritual teachings and Buddhist morality. In the United States, by contrast, mindfulness is often taught and practiced in purely secular terms. It is often offered simply as a tool for focusing attention and improving well-being, a conception of mindfulness that some critics have called “McMindfulness.”

Not only that, mindfulness and Buddhism have developed in Asian cultures in which the typical way people think about themselves differs from that in the United States. what I want, ”“ who I am. ”In contrast, people in Asian cultures more often see themselves in interdependent terms with“ us ”as the goal:“ what we want ”,“ who we are ”.

The cultural differences in the way people think about themselves are subtle and easy to ignore, much like different types of water. But just as these different types of water can change the flavors when you cook, I’ve wondered if different ways of thinking about yourself can alter the effects of mindfulness.

For interdependent people, what if paying close attention to their own experiences could naturally include reflecting on others – and making them more helpful or generous? And if that was the case, then would it be true that, for independent-minded people, conscious attention would make them focus more on their individual goals and desires, and thus make them more selfish?

Testing the social effects

I asked these questions of my colleague at the University of Buffalo, Shira Gabriel, because she is a recognized expert on independent and interdependent ways of thinking about oneself.

She agreed that this was an interesting question, so we worked with our students Lauren Ministero, Carrie Morrison and Esha Naidu to conduct a study in which we brought 366 students into the lab – that was before. the COVID-19 pandemic – and either engage in a brief mindfulness meditation or control exercise that actually involved mental wandering. We also measured the extent to which people see themselves in independent or interdependent terms. (It is important to note that while cultural differences in self-thinking are real, there is variability in this characteristic even within cultures.)

At the end of the study, we asked people if they could help solicit donations for a charity by filling out envelopes to send to potential donors.

The findings – which were accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science – detail how, among relatively interdependent individuals, brief mindfulness meditation made them more generous.

Specifically, briefly engaging in mindfulness exercise – as opposed to mind wandering – appeared to increase the number of envelopes filled with interdependent minds by 17%. However, among relatively independent individuals, mindfulness seemed to make them less generous with their time. This group of participants filled 15% fewer envelopes in the mindfulness condition than in the mindless condition.

In other words, the effects of mindfulness can be different for people depending on how they think about themselves. This figurative “water” can really change the recipe for mindfulness.

Of course, water can be filtered, and likewise, the way people think about themselves is fluid: we are all able to think of ourselves both independently and interdependent at different times. .

In fact, there is a relatively easy way to get people to change their perception of themselves. As researchers Marilynn Brewer and Wendi Gardner discovered, all you have to do is have them read a passage that is edited to have either a lot of “I” and “me” statements or a lot of “we” statements. ” and U.S “. , and ask people to identify all the pronouns. Previous research shows that this simple task reliably prompts people to think of themselves in terms more independent than interdependent.

Our research team wanted to see if this simple effect could also alter the effects of mindfulness on social behavior.

With that in mind, we conducted another study.

This time it was online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we used the same exercises.
First, however, we asked people to complete the pronoun task mentioned above. Next, we asked people if they would volunteer to contact potential donors to a charity.

Our results were striking: participating in a brief mindfulness exercise made people who identified the words “I / me” 33% less likely to volunteer, but those who identified the words “we / us” were 40% more likely to volunteer. to volunteer. In other words, the simple act of changing the way people see themselves at the moment – by filtering the water from thoughts related to themselves, if you will – changed the effects of mindfulness on behavior. many people who participated in this study.

Attention as a tool

The take home message? Mindfulness can lead to good or bad social outcomes, depending on the context.

Moreover, the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard said it when he wrote that even a sniper embodies a form of mindfulness. “Bare attention,” he added, “as consumed as it may be, is nothing more than a tool.” Yes, it can do a lot of good. But it can also “cause immense suffering”.

If practitioners strive to use mindfulness to reduce suffering, rather than increasing it, it is important to ensure that people are also aware of themselves as existents in relation to them. others.

This “water” can be the key ingredient in bringing out the full flavor of mindfulness.

Michael J. Poulin is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Buffalo. This article is taken from The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of information, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.