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Mindfulness can make you selfish, say psychologists. This exercise can reverse the effect

A new paper by University of Buffalo psychologists finds that mindfulness can decrease selfless behaviors among some practitioners.

Mindfulness can make you selfish, say psychologists. This exercise can reverse the effect
[Photo: Erik Brolin/Unsplash]
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There’s nothing more self-focused than sitting on a pillow and attentively clearing the mind. So is it really a surprise that meditators might be self-centered? No.

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A new paper by University of Buffalo psychologists finds that mindfulness can actually decrease behaviors that are beneficial to others, such as helping and volunteering. “Mindfulness can make you selfish,” says lead author Michael Poulin, associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

In the study, the unwillingness to help others was pronounced among people who perceive themselves in individual terms (“I do ___”), which is predominant among Western adults. Those who perceived themselves interdependently (“We do ___”) had the opposite outcome, displaying more prosocial behaviors.

This suggests that Western meditation may be yet another half-baked appropriation of an Eastern practice: East Asian populations tend to perceive themselves as interdependent, and thus the mindfulness practices rooted there may well increase selfless behaviors throughout society, posits Poulin. This is not the movie playing in the West, where practitioners have stripped mindfulness and meditation of their original contexts, in a way that harms interpersonal behaviors. 

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Caveat: This study took place in a lab with 366 participants, not in real life. The upside is that researchers took the time to find a repair mechanism: a simple exercise to encouraging people to think of themselves as interdependent reversed the effect. “This study shows that mindfulness is a tool, not a prescription,” says Poulin. “It requires more than a plug-and-play approach to avoid potential pitfalls.”

The paper is currently in preprint, and will be published in Psychological Science.