Study indicates a brief mindfulness meditation exercise results in blunted moral reactions

Mindfulness meditation appears to have beneficial effects on various aspects of life. But new research suggests that mindfulness doesn’t automatically enhance only the good side of people.

The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, provides preliminary evidence that brief mindfulness exercises can blunt moral reactions to harm.

“The reputation of mindfulness on moral behavior is immaculate. However, I have been doing Zen meditation for more than ten years and I wondered whether I became a better person,” said study author Simon Schindler, a research associate at the University of Kassel.

“As a social psychologist, I know that humans are neither purely good nor purely evil, but that moral behavior strongly depends on the situation. So, my colleagues and I asked for possible downsides of mindfulness on moral behavior.”

The researchers conducted five randomized controlled trials, with a combined total of 715 German adults, to examine the influence of a brief mindfulness meditation session on moral behavior. Most of the participants were college students and only a few of them reported having prior experience with meditation.

In all five trials, the participants were randomly assigned to either listen to a guided mindfulness exercise or another recording about an unrelated topic before completing a test to assess their morality.

In a hypothetical scenario, participants who meditated displayed a weaker tendency toward repairing the damage after causing harm to a friend by losing their bicycle. In addition, meat-eating participants who watched a video depicting the suffering of animals tended to report lower levels of bad conscience when they had meditated, which in turn was related to weaker intentions to reduce their future meat consumption.

“Practicing mindfulness may not automatically increase prosocial and moral behavior. Across five experiments, we found that a brief mindfulness exercise even attenuated moral reactions. Mindfulness — without being embedded in an ethical context — may thus have downsides regarding interpersonal and moral behavior that have been so far ignored by researchers and also practitioners,” Schindler told PsyPost.

In mindfulness meditation, practitioners learn to develop an accepting and nonjudgmental toward present moment thoughts and feelings. The authors of the study believe this may be responsible for blunting moral responses, but more research is needed to understand the underlying processes.

“Our findings raise a lot of questions and are far away from providing a final answer on this topic. It is important to investigate the robustness and the boundary conditions of the found effects. In the future, for example, we aim to apply long-term mindfulness interventions lasting several weeks instead of only ten minutes,” Schindler said.

And, of course, the findings shouldn’t be interpreted as suggesting that mindfulness meditation always promotes immoral behavior. “Practicing mindfulness can also certainly lead to stronger moral or less immoral reactions, for example, when the otherwise experienced feeling (e.g., feelings of vengeance or anger) would result in harming another person,” the researchers noted in their study.

“Our theoretical reasoning and the present studies point to a mixed pattern of moral consequences through mindfulness, suggesting that its moral effects depend strongly on the context.”

The study, “Potential negative consequences of mindfulness in the moral domain“, was authored by Simon Schindler, Stefan Pfattheicher, and Marc‐André Reinhard.