A new online experiment in the United Kingdom found that a brief mindfulness training (lasting 2 weeks, 15 minutes a day) can make individuals less likely to avoid information that may cause worry or regret. In this way, individuals can be trained to reduce one of the most important decision-making biases. The study was published in Economics Letters.
Avoiding information about potentially negative outcomes, even when such information is freely available is one of the most well-known biases in individual decision-making. It is also one of the most dangerous issues in decision making.
Historical stories of leaders who led their countries and companies into ruin, stories of people who died of curable diseases because they refused to acknowledge that they are ill, as well as the current story of a tourist submarine that imploded at depth killing everyone after company heads refused to listen to an engineer who warned them that such an outcome is likely (and fired him) are all examples of the common tendency of individuals to actively avoid receiving information that may cause worry or regret.
This tendency to avoid information about negative outcomes stands in stark contrast with the need to make good decisions. That is why researchers, particularly in the area of management have devoted a lot of attention to devising ways to reduce this information avoidance bias. One promising approach to this is mindfulness training.
Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally bringing one’s attention to the present moment without judgment. It involves being fully engaged in the here and now, acknowledging thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise. Training in mindfulness has been gaining in popularity in recent years, with various authors proposing and testing its benefits in reducing symptoms of stress, depression, increasing productivity, improving overall health and in a variety of other areas.
Study author Elliott Ash and his colleagues wanted to explore whether mindfulness training can be utilized for reducing information avoidance i.e., the tendency of individuals to avoid receiving information that can cause worry or regret. They organized an experiment with 261 participants recruited through a platform called Prolific.
All participants had to be from the United Kingdom and have a good record of participating in previous studies on Prolific. They were also required not to meditate, and only those who answered “No” to the question “Do you meditate?” were included.
The participants were randomly divided into two groups: one received mindfulness training, while the other received a music intervention. In the mindfulness group, participants engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness training session every day for two weeks. The training was led by an instructor and consisted of three stages: (1) bringing awareness to the present moment, (2) mindful breathing while nonjudgmentally observing thoughts, and (3) a body scan to expand awareness throughout the body.
After the third stage, participants would simply sit with their accumulated awareness until the instructor ended the session. The music intervention, led by the same instructor, involved participants listening to relaxing music. All intervention sessions were pre-recorded, and participants could choose the time of day they preferred to participate online.
Before and after the interventions, participants completed assessments to measure their information avoidance, mindfulness, and stress levels. The results showed no differences between the two groups at the beginning of the study. Thirteen percent of participants in the mindfulness group and 18% in the music group did not complete their respective interventions.
Comparing the results after the interventions, the researchers found that mindfulness training increased participants’ willingness to receive potentially negative information. In other words, those who underwent mindfulness training were less likely to avoid such information compared to those who received the music intervention. Mindfulness training also increased participants’ mindfulness levels.
“The costs of information avoidance for individuals, society and the economy are potentially substantial (from individuals unwilling to learn about their health, including whether or not they carry infectious diseases, to students unwilling to check their marks, to investors holding off looking at their stocks’ performance), so understanding what might drive some individuals to avoid information more than others is important,” the study authors concluded.
“Our evidence suggests that people in the population who spend more of their time inhabiting mindful states are better able to look at potentially negative, but nonetheless useful, information about themselves and the world. Supplementary evidence suggests that it may be mindfulness’s effects on emotion regulation (specifically, non-reaction to emotions) that acts as a potential mechanism through which this greater tolerance for information operates.”
The study makes an important contribution to developing ways to reduce information avoidance. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, study authors were not able to verify whether participants really followed instructions given to them in the training and engaged in mediation as required. Additionally, since participants in the mindfulness group knew that mediation is their daily activity, they could have realized that researchers expect them to improve in the ability to meditate. This might have influenced their responses in the assessments of information avoidance and mindfulness after the study.
The paper “Mindfulness reduces information avoidance” was authored by Elliott Ash, Daniel Sgroi, Anthony Tuckwell, and Shi Zhuo.