mindfulness meditation
February 13, 2014

Mindfulness Meditation Can Encourage People To Make More Rational Decisions

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new study from researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School shows that one 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices.

Commonly called "throwing good money after bad," people have trouble cutting their losses, resulting in behaviors such as holding on to stocks too long, staying in bad relationships, or continuing to eat large restaurant meals even when they are full. Behavioral scientists call this the "sunk-cost bias."

"Most people have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes," says researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, doctoral candidate at INSEAD. "They don't want to feel wasteful or that their initial investment was a loss. Ironically, this kind of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in an attempt to regain their initial investment or try to 'break even'."

Hafenbrack and his colleagues conducted a series of studies, finding that mindfulness meditation — cultivating awareness of the present moment and clearing the mind of other thoughts — may help to counteract this deep-rooted bias. Their results are published in a recent issue of Psychological Science.

"We found that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can encourage people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, while ignoring some of the other concerns that typically exacerbate the 'sunk cost bias,'" explains Hafenbrack.

Hafenbrack worked with Zoe Kinias, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, and Sigal Barsade, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, to conduct four studies testing the premise that mindfulness meditation could improve decision-making by increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

In one study conducted online, US participants reported about how much they typically focus on the present moment. The participants also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios — for example, whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for when illness and bad weather made enjoyment unlikely — and then reported how much they would let go of sunk costs in each of them. According to the results, the more people focus on the present moment, the more they are willing to ignore sunk costs.

The researchers conducted an additional three experiments to test whether mindfulness caused an increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias in which participants listened to a 15-minute recording made by a professional mindfulness coach. In the first experiment, the recording led them through a focused-breathing meditation that repeatedly instructed them to focus on the sensations of breathing. The second recording asked the participants to think of whatever comes to mind, a practice that is not a form of meditation. Both groups were then asked to respond to sunk-cost scenario questions. Participants in the third study also answered questions about the time period on which they focused — past, present or future — and the emotions they experienced.

The findings reveal that mindfulness meditation created an increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias in each of the three experiments.

"The debiasing effect of mindfulness meditation in sunk-cost situations was due to a two-step process," said Zoe Kinias. "First, meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs."

"This tool is very practical," said Sigal Barsade. "Our findings hold great promise for research on how mindfulness can influence emotions and behavior, and how employees can use it to feel and perform better."