Mindfulness is one of the most abused terms in the English language at the moment and the massive gap between its study, the media and the claims of some of its practitioners is yawning ever more widely.

The Financial Times today runs this article that confidently proclaims that Mindfulness at work is not quite what its cracked up to be. Maybe not, but a click-bait headline tossing out that accusation recalls the pot and the kettle to somewhat. The story was also picked up in the Harvard Business Review with a relatively considered response, though they still went with the bold headline Mindfulness is Demotivating. They declined to publish a link to the actual research so that we could make up our own minds – that wouldn’t do at all now, would it?

On the flip side, there’s no doubt that when stories like this are run, a thousand responses will declare the miracles of the practice but in terms of finding out the core of truth, they’re about as useful as the research they’re decrying. Like all tools, mindfulness can be useful or harmful though in this particular case, the tool is like a hammer that is often used like a saw or declared the only tool in the box, which it isn’t, not by far.

The study itself was fairly limited in scope and the evidence on which the headlines were based quite narrow. Problem number one: they didn’t mean mindfulness, they meant meditation. The participants were asked to meditate for 15 minutes before the follow-up task in which their motivation was measured. That’s not the same as mindfulness, not even close. Second: they assumed the meditation was actual meditation and, because of the difference between an actual altered state and simply emerging from a state of zoning out, their claims might be way off. Meditation is a skill that takes practice and commitment, whereas anyone can stare into space and let their thoughts drift. There were checks in place but self-report can be pretty unreliable and some of the experiments were conducted through software online meaning no interaction took place with the experimenters. Thirdly – and this isn’t the fault of the researchers but the reporting – the experiments showed no decrease in actual performance, just motivation to do the task which might as well lead to headlines like People that Meditate can Sniff out Bullshit and cant be Arsed with it any Longer. There’s about as much evidence for that as for the headlines that were used.

In conclusion the research is actually highly usable when added to the body of literature on the subject so don’t discount it by any means. The problem is the way in which scientists of all stripes are at the whim of a click-obsessed media who will torture any data, conclusion or strand of research in order to sell advertising or confirm their biases about – in this case – whether mindfulness is the miracle or the snake-oil that its variably claimed to be.

Hafenbrack, Andrew & Vohs, Kathleen. (2018). Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 147. 10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.05.001.

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