Can Mindfulness Make Independent People Less Likely to Help Others?

A recent set of studies shows that while mindfulness may enhance self-awareness, it does not necessarily increase prosocial behavior.

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Most of the on the effects of mindfulness has focused on the individual or internal effects of mindfulness, such as paying attention or reducing stress. Much less is known the social impact of mindfulness training. While some may experience benefits from practices like meditation, new research finds that mindfulness training may not make people more socially-minded.

When we see ourselves as interdependent, we tend to behave in ways that are consistent with valuing interpersonal harmony and relationships, while those who see themselves as independent tend to act in line with the values of autonomy and self-benefit.

MindfulnessPrior research has shown that when we see ourselves as interdependent, we tend to behave in ways that are consistent with valuing interpersonal harmony and relationships, while those who see themselves as independent tend to act in line with the values of autonomy and self-benefit.

The Effects of Mindfulness on Socially-Minded Behavior

Researchers at the University at Buffalo conducted two studies

In the first study, 366 undergraduate students completed a assessing their levels of independence versus interdependence at the beginning of the semester. They were then assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a group.

Students in the meditation group listened to 15 minutes of recorded instruction on how to pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing to induce a state of mindfulness. Control group members listened to 15 minutes of recorded instructions encouraging them to let their minds wander. Both groups then read an article about a local charity that served rural and unhoused people, and were asked to help raise funds for the charity by stuffing envelopes with letters to prospective donors. The participants were told that their decision would not affect the study.

Can We Boost Our Willingness to Help Others?

A new group of 325 students were randomly assigned to either read a paragraph filled with “I” statements (e.g. “I went to the city”), or one with “we” statements (e.g. “We went to the city”) and click on each pronoun as they read the paragraph. They then completed a survey assessing their self-concept (independence vs. interdependence). Similar to the first study, students listened to either 15 minutes of recorded meditation instruction, or heard information on mind wandering. At the end, they were all asked to sign up for time slots to chat online with potential donors to a local charity.

Results of the two studies suggest that while mindfulness may enhance self-awareness, it does not necessarily increase prosocial behavior. Encouraging individuals to think of themselves as part of a group while engaging in mindfulness exercises may boost their willingness to act altruistically. However, for those who identify as being independent, mindfulness instruction may not prevent them from thinking of themselves first.

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