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New research examines the link between mindfulness and prosocial behavior. Fiordaliso/Getty Images
  • Mindfulness is a practice of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner.
  • Researchers have suggested that mindfulness may improve prosocial behavior, but studies looking at this have been inconclusive.
  • In the present study, the researchers explored whether a person’s self-conception can determine whether mindfulness will improve their prosocial behavior.
  • The researchers found mindfulness decreased prosocial behavior for people who see themselves as independent and increased it for those who perceive themselves as interdependent.

A new study has shown that people who consider themselves interdependent improve their prosocial behavior following mindfulness practice. Those who view themselves as independent, however, have decreased prosocial behavior.

The study, which is available as a preprint and is due for publication in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that mindfulness is a tool that can be put to different effects depending on the context.

In 1994, Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Researchers have shown that mindfulness can alleviate stress, increase hope and reduce negative emotions, and strengthen a person’s sense of well-being.

Some research has found that mindfulness can improve a person’s prosocial behavior, that is, the extent to which they act on behalf of others. However, other research has found that this is less clear.

The authors of the present study note that mindfulness can be understood as increasing a person’s self-awareness.

While some researchers have understood mindfulness as reducing a person’s sense of ego, others have found that it increases self-referential processing.

As a consequence, the study authors suggest mindfulness may amplify a person’s preexisting “self-construal,” which can be understood as being either interdependent or independent.

A person with an interdependent self-construal will see themselves in relation to others, be it close friends or family or a group they perceive themselves to be a part of.

In contrast, a person with an independent self-construal will understand themselves on their own terms, separate from others.

The authors of the present study suggest that people with an independent self-construal will have this amplified by mindfulness and be less likely to act on behalf of others.

Conversely, they expected mindfulness to increase prosocial behavior for people with an interdependent self-construal.

To test this, the authors analyzed data from a previous study and conducted another one.

In the first study, 366 participants had their level of independence or interdependence measured. They were then instructed in 15 minutes of one of two types of meditation practice.

The first, which asked people to focus on their breathing, was designed to cultivate a state of mindfulness. The second asked people to let their mind wander and was designed as an active control to not cultivate mindfulness.

In order to assess how meditation affects information processing, participants were then asked to read a newspaper article.

The participants were told this was randomly selected. In reality, however, all participants read the same article, which was from a local newspaper and talked about a charity supporting rural or homeless people.

The researchers then measured the participants’ compassion. To do that, they gave them a letter said to be from the director of the lab noting that some participants who had read the article expressed an interest in helping the charity.

The experimenters then asked the participants whether they wanted to stuff envelopes on behalf of the charity to help raise donations. Those who agreed were given no guidance on how many envelopes to stuff or how long to maintain the task.

The second study involved 325 participants and resembled the first, except it was conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, instead of stuffing envelopes, participants were asked to sign up to time slots or speak to potential donors, asking them to financially support the charity.

In both studies, the researchers found that a person’s self-construal was a key determinant in whether they then engaged in prosocial behavior.

Mindfulness made people who saw themselves as interdependent more likely to act in a prosocial manner.

By contrast, those who thought of themselves as independent were less likely to exhibit prosocial behavior following mindfulness practice.

According to Dr. Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, NY, and the paper’s lead author, “mindfulness can make you selfish. It’s a qualified fact, but it’s also accurate.”

However, this does not mean that mindfulness is ineffective or not useful.

For Dr. Poulin, “that would be an oversimplification. 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.”

The research may be important for improving our understanding of when and how mindfulness may be valuable. According to Dr. Poulin and co-authors of the study,

“[O]ur results point towards ways to modify mindfulness interventions, perhaps by incorporating a focus on interdependence, to promote the best outcomes for individuals and for society.”