- Mindfulness meditation affects people from cultures that prize individualism and those that value interdependence differently.
- People with more individualistic backgrounds will be less likely to volunteer or be more prosocial.
- Being more aware of how connected individuals are to each other can help prevent a decrease in prosociality.
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern, collective societies that tend to promote "all for one, one for all" interdependence.
New research suggests that in Western societies that tend to put a premium on individualism over collectivism, mindfulness training may increase selfishness by making those who prioritize "me-centric" independence over "we-centric" interdependence less likely to exhibit prosocial behavior.
"Mindfulness can make you selfish. It's a qualified fact, but it's also accurate," first author Michael Poulin , associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, said in an April 13 news release . A preprint of the team's findings ( Poulin et al., 2021 ) was published online ahead of print on April 9; their peer-reviewed paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.
Poulin et al. found that "mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent." However, on the flip side, the researchers found that "for people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behavior."
We versus me: Can mindfulness increase selfishness?
During the first phase of this multi-pronged study, the researchers evaluated hundreds of participants' ( N = 366) individual levels of "me-centric" independence vs. "we-centric" interdependence prior to giving them mindfulness instructions or having a control group perform mind-wandering exercises in a laboratory setting.
Before leaving the lab, study participants were informed about an opportunity to volunteer stuffing envelopes for a nonprofit organization; volunteerism is a hallmark of altruism and prosocial behavior.
After analyzing their data, the researchers found that practicing mindfulness as opposed to mind-wandering decreased the prosociality of those who tended to be more independent but not those who viewed the world through a more interdependent lens.
In the second experiment, instead of simply measuring people's baseline levels of independence or interdependence, the researchers randomly primed and encouraged study participants ( N = 325) to either think of themselves in more independent (individualistic) terms or more interdependent (collectivist) terms.
Interestingly, in those primed for independent self-construals, mindfulness training decreased their likelihood of volunteering by 33 percent. Conversely, when someone was primed for interdependent self-construals, his or her likelihood of volunteering increased by 40 percent.
Mindfulness-based therapies aren't magic bullets.
Poulin et al.'s recent paper isn't the first to cast doubt on the universal benefits of mindfulness. A few years ago, a group of 15 mindfulness scholars ( Van Dam et al., 2018 ) published a paper, "Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation," which sounded an alarm warning that mindfulness was being overhyped .
"[Much] popular media fail to accurately represent scientific examination of mindfulness, making rather exaggerated claims about the potential benefits of mindfulness practices," Nicholas Van Dam and coauthors wrote.
A Washington Post article about this "Mind the Hype" paper and related science-based research notes that mindfulness has become a billion-dollar industry but also says: "For all its popularity, researchers don't know exactly what the mindfulness version of meditation—or any other kind of meditation—does to the brain, how it influences health and to what extent it helps physical and mental challenges."
Last year, another study ( Saltsman et al., 2020 ) found that mindfulness may cause people in distress to "sweat the small stuff" if they use mindfulness techniques while experiencing an "active stressor." (See " How Mindfulness Could Backfire at Stressful Moments .")
Mindfulness + individualism ≠ prosocial behavior
Poulin and colleagues acknowledge that their recent (2021) findings of mindfulness decreasing prosocial behavior in people with independent self-construals may "sound contradictory given the pop culture toehold of mindfulness as an unequivocal positive mental state." However, they also emphasize that "the message here isn't one that dismantles the effectiveness of mindfulness."
"That would be an oversimplification," Poulin says. "Research suggests that mindfulness works, but this study shows that it's a tool, not a prescription, which requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls."
One pitfall that may need to be avoided by Western practitioners of mindfulness is the tendency to put a premium on individualism while downplaying the value of collectivism. From a cross-cultural psychology perspective, Poulin et al. explain:
"The emphasis of Western cultures on individualism and Eastern cultures on collectivism has led people from Western cultures to have more salient, active, and easily accessible independent self-construals as compared to people from Eastern cultures. However, all people have both independent and interdependent aspects of self that can be activated by situation, including by experimental primes. Thus self-construal is both a trait and a state. Those accessible goals then influence decisions and behaviors."
"Despite these individual and cultural differences, there is also variability within each person, and any individual at different points in time can think of themselves either way, in singular or plural terms," Poulin concludes. "We have to think about how to get the most out of mindfulness. We have to know how to use the tool."
The researchers speculate that encouraging people to think more about their interdependence with others before practicing mindfulness might help to avoid a decrease in prosocial behavior among those with a more individualistic worldview.
Michael Poulin, Lauren Ministero, Shira Gabriel, Carrie Morrison, Esha Naidu. "Minding Your Own Business? Mindfulness Decreases Prosocial Behavior for Those With Independent Self-Construals." Psychological Science (Forthcoming preprint first published: April 09, 2021) DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/xhyua
Thomas L. Saltsman, Mark D. Seery, Deborah E. Ward, Tracy M. Radsvick, Zaviera A. Panlilio, Veronica M. Lamarche, Cheryl L. Kondrak. "Facing the Facets: No Association Between Dispositional Mindfulness Facets and Positive Momentary Stress Responses During Active Stressors." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published: October 06, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0146167220956898
Nicholas T. Van Dam, Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner, Sara W. Lazar, Catherine E. Kerr, Jolie Gorchov, Kieran C. R. Fox, Brent A. Field, Willoughby B. Britton, Julie A. Brefczynski-Lewis, David E. Meyer. "Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation." Perspectives on Psychological Science (First available online: October 10, 2017) DOI: 10.1177/1745691617709589