In recent years, there has been a lot talk about all the possible positive effects of mindfulness, but occasionally scientists also point to potential pitfalls. For example, a US study now suggests that attention training may make certain people, people with a rather individualistic attitude, more self-centered. However, the researchers do believe that mindfulness sessions can be adjusted in a relatively simple way to reduce this risk.
In studies on the effects of mindfulness, scientists usually focus on the influence of the training on people’s inner well-being. For example, studies state that mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety and generally strengthens emotional well-being. But a team from the American University of Buffalo decided to focus on the social consequences of mindfulness. The scientists looked at the extent to which mindfulness could promote individualistic behavior and feelings of solidarity.
The researchers set up an experiment with 325 participants, of whom they first analyzed the personality. One test showed which subjects had an individualistic attitude and which people were more group-oriented. Then they all received mindfulness training. After that session, participants were asked if they would sign up as volunteers to chat online with potential donors to help raise money for a charity.
After the mindfulness training, 40% more of the group-oriented group decided to volunteer – so their feelings of solidarity were still stimulated. But among individualistic individuals, that willingness dropped by 33%, suggesting that they became a lot more self-centered after the session. That second result is at odds with the rosy image that is often painted of mindfulness, but also does not mean that we should just ignore attention training.
“That would be far too short a turnaround, because research shows that mindfulness works,” said lead researcher Michael Poulin. “But our study shows that it is a tool, not a ready-made solution, that requires a more personalized approach if you want to avoid potential pitfalls for practitioners.”
The researchers therefore propose that mindfulness training should provide additional guidance to help people think about their relationships with others and about themselves as part of a community. For example, mindfulness can help them not only to work on their inner well-being, but also on their social behavior.
Finally, the researchers also point out that mindfulness originated in East Asia, where people are more group oriented than in the west. As a result, increased egocentrism due to mindfulness in this culture was and is probably a less common problem, so that this negative consequence has remained under the radar for a long time. But since we are generally more individualistic in the west, we should pay more attention to this.