Home Doctor NewsMental health Mindfulness meditation can alleviate guilt, which might have unanticipated negative societal implications

Mindfulness meditation can alleviate guilt, which might have unanticipated negative societal implications

by Pragati Singh

Mindfulness Meditation is an old stress-reduction technique that involves focusing attention on the physical sensations of breathing in order to create nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Originally inspired by centuries-old Buddhist practises that combined philosophy and meditations, a secular version of mindfulness that focuses solely on meditations is gaining popularity.

Self-awareness applications are available, and many large organisations are incorporating mindfulness training programmes into their curriculums. According to recent study done by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, secular mindfulness meditation techniques may have an unintended negative.

“Meditating can reduce feelings of guilt, thus limiting reactions like generosity that are important to human relationships,” said lead author Andrew Hafenbrack, an assistant professor in the Foster School who studies mindfulness.

The goal of the study was to see how mindfulness meditation affects unpleasant emotions like anger and guilt.

“Negative emotions may not be pleasant, but they can help us navigate social situations and maintain relationships,” Hafenbrack said.

“If someone gets really angry and they yell at their boss, or something, and they get fired or make people feel unsafe, then you know that’s a bad thing,” Hafenbrack said. “Not all negative emotions are the same in terms of the kinds of behaviors that they queue up, though.”

“Meditating for short periods of time is a tool that can make people feel better, like popping an aspirin when they have a headache,” Hafenbrack said. “We have a responsibility as researchers to share not only the many positive effects of meditation, but also the inadvertent side effects, such as the potential for it to occasionally relax one’s moral compass.”

The researchers conducted eight trials with over 1,400 people in the United States and Portugal to better understand meditation techniques. Each experiment had a different set of participants: some were internet recruited U.S. adults, some were graduate students at a university in Portugal, and another group was largely undergraduates at the Wharton School of Business.

The researchers found that mindfulness reduces emotions of guilt in their first study. Participants were given the option of writing about a former experience that made them feel bad or writing about their previous day at random.

Then participants listened to either an eight-minute guided mindfulness meditation audio or an eight-minute control condition recording in which they were told to let their minds wander. When compared to the mind-wandering control group, participants who listened to the mindfulness audio felt less guilty. This was true whether they had written about a wrongdoing or their day before.

The researchers then conducted six further trials to see if mindfulness meditation may alter prosocial reparative actions, such as making amends with a buddy after doing something wrong.

For example, in two experiments all participants were asked to recall and write about a time they wronged someone and felt guilty, before being randomly assigned to meditate or not. After that, they were asked to allocate a hypothetical $100 between a birthday gift for the person they had wronged, a charity for African flood victims, and themselves. Participants who had meditated allocated approximately 17% less to the person they had wronged compared to those who had not meditated.

The psychological process behind these allocation differences was reduced guilt. These and three other, similar experiments established that mindfulness meditation reduces the tendency to make amends for harming others.

“This research serves as a caution to people who might be tempted to use mindfulness meditation to reduce emotions that are unpleasant, but necessary to support moral thoughts and behavior,” said co-author Isabelle Solal, an assistant professor at ESSEC Business School in Cergy-Pointoise, France.

While concentrated breathing meditation is the most common type of meditation, it’s also included in mindfulness programmes like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique and Google’s Search Inside Yourself. Loving kindness meditation is imagining other people and sending them well-wishes for happiness, health, and freedom from pain.

Participants in the last experiment wrote about a moment when they mistreated someone and felt terrible before listening to either a focused breathing mindfulness meditation audio or a loving kindness meditation tape.

When compared to the focused breathing meditation group, individuals in the loving kindness group expressed a stronger desire to contact, apologise to, and make amends with those they had wronged. Participants’ heightened focus on others and sentiments of love were shown to explain the difference.

“Our research suggests that loving kindness meditation may allow people to reap the stress-reduction benefits of meditation without sacrificing repair, because it increases focus on others and feelings of love,” said co-author Matthew LaPalme, a former Yale University research scientist who now works at Amazon.

On December 23, 2021, the study was published online for the first time. The Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, the Wharton Behavioral Lab, INSEAD, and the University of Washington Foster School all contributed to the study.

 

 

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