A series of studies have uncovered a causal relationship between mindfulness meditation and decreased feelings of guilt. The findings have been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Several studies have found that mindfulness meditation draws people’s focus inward and reduces negative emotions. But some negative emotions provide useful social feedback. For example, feelings of guilt help to push individuals to atone for their transgressions against others. The new study provides evidence that mindfulness can lead to undesirable outcomes by dampening feelings of guilt.
“I was interested in doing this research because, after I started studying meditation and meditating myself, I noticed that I was using it as almost a default way of reacting to stressors,” said study author Andrew C. Hafenbrack, an assistant professor at the University of Washington. “This was great when I was overly ruminating or overreacting to some minor problem, and is a powerful sleep aid. Sometimes, however, this meant that I would meditate or focus on my breath in situations that there was actually a significant problem and it would have been better if I had faced it directly and immediately.”
“I had some confidence that I was not alone in this when I read a Harvard Business Review article by medical doctor and executive coach David Brendel in 2015, where he described that he ‘worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset. The issue here is that some problems require more thinking, not less.'”
“I also know several people who are into mind-body practices, including but not limited to mindfulness meditation, but who are unusually flaky or otherwise don’t treat other people particularly well. So I wondered what was going on. It seemed to go against the essence of what I thought mindfulness and meditation were supposed to do, which is largely due to the associations I had based on the traditional or religious forms.”
The researchers conducted eight separate experiments, which included more than 1,400 participants. In the studies, the participants were randomly assigned to either listen to an 8-minute guided meditation recording created by a professional mindfulness meditation instructor or an 8-minute recording by the same speaker in which they were instructed to think of whatever came to mind.
Participants who listened to the guided meditation recording tended to have reduced feelings of guilt and were less willing to engage in prosocial reparative behaviors in response to transgressions.
For example, in two experiments the participants were asked to recall and write about a time they had 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.
Participants who listened to the guided meditation recording also tended to write less sincere apologies to those they had wronged. Importantly, the researchers found that the negative effect of mindfulness meditation on prosocial reparation was entirely explained by reduced feelings of guilt.
“Focused breathing mindfulness meditation reliably reduces negative emotions, which makes people feel better. However, all emotions are partly a form of information, and in many cases we ignore that information at our peril,” Hafenbrack told PsyPost.
In their final experiment, the researchers compared mindfulness meditation to another form of meditative practice known as loving kindness meditation, which consists of imagery exercises in which one evokes other people and sends wishes that each is happy, well and free from suffering. Hafenbrack and his colleagues found that loving kindness meditation led to a greater willingness to engage in reparative behavior and reduced self-focus compared to mindfulness meditation.
“One way to meditate with less of a risk of it making you treat others worse is to engage in loving kindness meditation, which we found led to higher levels of prosocial reparative behavior than focused breathing meditation,” Hafenbrack said. “Whereas focused breathing mindfulness meditation makes people focus on themselves (their own physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions) and in so doing makes people calm (by clearing out negative emotions), loving kindness meditation increases focus on other people and increases positive emotions such as love.”
The new findings provide evidence for a rare negative consequence of mindfulness meditation. But the researchers do not believe that mindfulness meditation is inherently bad.
“We think this research is a caveat in itself,” Hafenbrack told PsyPost. “What I mean by that is that focused breathing mindfulness meditation typically leads to more helping behavior, which James Donald and colleagues showed was a reliable effect in a meta-analysis published in 2019 of 31 studies with more than 17,000 participants. We are indicating an exception or caveat to that finding – when the reason that people would be helpful is that they wronged another person and feel guilty, mindfulness meditation actually reduces that kind of helping behavior.”
Previous research has also found that mindfulness meditation can increase selfishness among some individuals. But the secularization of meditation could be partially to blame.
“From a Darwinian perspective, people have so many negative emotions in part because those emotions were functional adaptations that helped our ancestors survive the elements and procreate, so we should at least ask what negative emotions are trying to tell us before we reduce them through meditation, alcohol consumption, or other means,” Hafenbrack said.
“Before mindfulness meditation was popular in Western countries, most people were not looking for a new religion (either because they already had one or were skeptical of religions) and there would have been pushback against trying to spread practices that felt religious in government or corporate settings. As Jaime Kucinskas described in several articles and the book The Mindful Elite, the Western proponents of mindfulness secularized it – removing things that felt religious like guru worship, robes, and hand mudras. Many of them also massively toned down or completely removed the philosophical considerations which encouraged people to treat others well, consider the downstream outcomes of their actions, and do the right thing.”
“I think it is important to think more specifically about what we mean when we talk about, use, or cultivate mindfulness,” Hafenbrack continued. “It means vastly different things to different people. I hope this research prompts people to think of it as a specific series of practices with specific psychological effects that can differ based on the intentions behind them and the context around them, rather than a vague panacea which will always make people and those around them better off in every situation.”
The study, “Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Guilt and Prosocial Reparation“, was authored by Andrew C. Hafenbrack, Matthew L. LaPalme, and Isabelle Solal.