Mindfulness is everywhere these days. There are studies touting the benefits of mindfulness for many people. For example, mindfulness meditation can be a valuable stress reduction technique. It is not a panacea, of course. Mindfulness exercises don’t make people more creative. Mindfulness may also make it harder for people to know the source of their memories.
What about reducing criminal behavior? Can mindfulness help people with a history of criminal behavior to reduce their tendency to think in ways that promote criminality?
This question was explored in a paper in the October 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by June Tangney, Ashley Dobbins, Jeffrey Steuwig, and Shannon Schrader.
These authors looked at the relationship between two kinds of measures both in a sample of inmates in jail as well as in a sample of college undergraduates.
One measure looked at components of mindfulness. Studies of mindfulness have suggested that there are a number of dimensions of thinking that mindfulness techniques can promote. There are also individual differences in how much people engage in these thought patterns.
For example, mindfulness is associated with being aware of information in the environment and internal thoughts and feelings in the present. It is associated with people’s ability to clear their mind and their willingness to accept emotions. It is also associated with reserving judgment about the self and others.
The second measure looked at criminogenic cognitions. The idea here is that there are patterns of thought that are reliably associated with engaging in criminal behavior. These include feeling more deserving and entitled than other people, a failure to accept responsibility, a negative attitude toward authority, a tendency to focus only on short-term outcomes, and being fairly insensitive to the impact of criminal behavior.
The authors first gave these measures to a population of over 250 inmates. Careful analyses of the data suggested that the relationship between mindfulness and criminogenic thinking is complex.
The aspects of mindfulness that help people to accept their emotions were associated with the ability to regulate emotions. The better inmates were at regulating their emotions, the lower their level of criminogenic thinking.
So far, so good.
However, the aspect of mindfulness associated with reserving judgment about the self actually increased criminogenic thinking significantly. So, overall the positive and negative effects of mindfulness nearly canceled each other out.
The authors then did a second study with undergraduates. The pattern of results was similar, but overall there was a smaller tendency for reserving judgment about the self to influence criminogenic thinking. So, in a non-prison population, mindfulness decreased criminogenic thinking overall.
These results suggest that the different facets of mindfulness have different influences on thought and action. Mindfulness can make people aware of their emotions, which can make them better at understanding and regulating their emotions. Mindfulness can keep people from judging themselves and others, which can reduce stress by keeping people from focusing on the negative aspects of their own and other people’s behavior.
For individuals who are prone to thought patterns associated with criminal behavior, though, it can be a problem if people stop judging themselves. This self-judgment can prevent people from accepting responsibility for their actions, and that can increase these crime-related thought patterns.
This work makes clear that when assessing the costs and benefits of mindfulness, it is important to recognize that mindfulness has many different effects on thinking. Rather than looking simply at whether mindfulness as a single thing has an impact on overall thought and behavior, it is important to look at the components of mindfulness.
Tangney, J.P., Dobbins, A.E., Stuewig, J.B., & Schrader, S.W. (2017). Is there a dark side to mindfulness? Relation of mindfulness to criminogenic cognitions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(10), 1415-1426.