EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Simon Schindler
11.01.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report
University of Kassel, Germany; Project: Potential Negative Consequences of Mindfulness in the Moral Domain
First, I want to thank the EASP for the financial support that enabled us to conduct a well-powered study on the effect of mindfulness on moral reactions. The study outlined in the following was done in collaboration with my good colleague Stefan Pfattheicher (Aarhus University, Denmark).
With the present study, we investigated attenuating effects of mindfulness on moral reactions that usually result from the experience of having caused harm to others (e.g., repairing the caused harm or reducing future harmful behavior). Given that mindfulness training is currently offered in the workplace, in schools, and in the military context, we believe that our research question has important implications for broad ethical and societal issues, especially given that “attempts to study its potential harmful or negative effects are nearly absent” (Karremans & Papies, 2017; see also Van Dam et al., 2018).
According to the operational definition of Bishop et al. (2004) one component of mindfulness includes meta-cognitive awareness of one’s internal mental experiences and observing them as such and to watch them come and go; that is, one takes the position of a neutral observer of one’s own emotions and thoughts, without ruminating about and identifying with them too much, and without reflecting on their valence or their content in general. Aligned with this idea, previous research showed mindfulness to be linked to increased executive control and the promotion of self-regulatory capacity (e.g., Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011). Friese and Hofmann (2016), for example, assessed state mindfulness in one study and found increasing levels of mindfulness to be linked to fewer experiences of guilt and regret after having acted on a desire, supporting the positive link between mindfulness and effective emotion regulation. Moreover, experimental social psychological research provided evidence that even a brief mindfulness induction attenuated effects of motivational states and traits on appetitive behavior and on interpersonal attraction (Papies, Pronk, Keesman, & Barsalou, 2015), buffered retaliatory responses to injustice (Long & Christian, 2015), and reduced implicit age and race bias (Lueke & Gibson, 2015).
It is further typically assumed that causing harm to others leads to feelings of guilt and a bad conscience (Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1994), further promoting reparative actions in order to repair the harm that has been done (e.g., De Hooge, Zeelenberg, & Breugelmans, 2007). In this regard, guilt serves as an important emotion for strengthening interpersonal relationships and contributing to moral behavior, that is behavior serving the welfare of other beings (Haidt, 2003; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). Thus, it is an important question whether such a moral emotion – typically elicited by the experience of having caused harm – is more effectively regulated through being in a mindful state. In fact, this can be assumed according to previous research, leading to the hypothesis that a brief mindfulness exercise attenuates harm-based moral reactions.
The present study tested this idea. According to an a priori power analysis, we included 251 German students. They were randomly assigned to the experimental conditions in a 2 (caused harm: no vs. yes) x 2 (exercise: mindfulness vs. no treatment) between-subjects factorial design. The study was pre-registered on AsPredicted (https://aspredicted.org/8rx54.pdf).
To assess harm-based moral reactions, we used the procedure of Xu, Bègue, and Bushman (2012). Participants read that they would be shown eight (illusive) pictures for 5 s each and that they should count the number of faces in each picture (this task was almost impossible to solve in such a short period of time). Furthermore, participants were informed that the number of correct answers would determine the final outcome of another randomly chosen participant “Person A.” After having completed the picture task, all participants were asked to engage in a mental exercise. They listened to one of two 12-minute audio recordings translated from Long and Christian (2015). Participants in the control condition were given mind-wandering instructions. Next, participants received their result regarding the correct numbers of faces in the pictures. In the harm condition, they read that due to their answers the income of “Person A” would be reduced. In the no harm control condition, they read that the income of “Person A” would not be reduced. To measure harm based moral behavior, participants played a dictator game in which they had the option to give a fraction of their money “Person A.”
To test our hypothesis, we ran an ANOVA with exercise and harm as independent variables and the amount of money given in the dictator game as the dependent variable. The analysis yielded a significant main effect of harm. There was, however, no significant main effect of exercise, and, most importantly, no significant interaction effect. Thus, results of this study do not support our hypothesis.
We want to note that the present study is part of a recently published article by Schindler, Pfattheicher, and Reinhard (in press). In this article, we report results of four further conducted studies. Three of the five studies (including the present one) revealed no clear evidence in favour of our assumed effect. A following meta-analysis across all five studies, however, showed a significant attenuating effect of mindfulness (vs. control condition) on moral reactions in the harm condition. The effect was of small-to-medium size Accordingly, our findings overall provide preliminary support for the idea that mindfulness affects mechanisms that would lead to repairing behavior after having caused harm to other beings. As we emphasize in the article, we are aware that the present set of studies raises many questions and is far away from providing a final word on this topic; however, we regard science as a cumulative enterprise that progresses step by step, always aware of the possibility that our idea might be false.
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- Schindler, S., Pfattheicher, S., & Reinhard, M.-A. (in press). Potential negative consequences of mindfulness in the moral domain. European Journal of Social Psychology.
- Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. J. (2007). What’s moral about the self-conscious emotions? In J. L. Tracy, R. W. Robins, & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 21–37). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., ... & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 36–61.
- Xu, H., Bègue, L., & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Too fatigued to care: Ego depletion, guilt, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1183–1186.