Summary: Researchers studied the relationship between mindfulness and people’s reactions to injustice. They aimed to understand whether mindfulness might make people less responsive to perceived unfair treatment of others.
Contrary to concerns that mindfulness may numb reactions, the studies revealed that mindful individuals were more outraged by unfair treatment of others. This has potential implications for incorporating mindfulness training in tackling broader societal issues.
The comprehensive research included four different studies across multiple countries and contexts, revealing that mindfulness heightens moral outrage when witnessing injustice.
The studies ranged from supervisor responses to perceived corporate social irresponsibility to lab experiments, showing a consistent result across varying situations and demographics.
The results prompted a reevaluation of mindfulness training courses at the Mindfulness Initiative @ SMU, considering the integration of courses aimed at enhancing self-transcendence to address ESG priorities.
Source: Singapore Management University
To be mindful is to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by the things that are happening around us.
Because of this, a concern about the practice of mindfulness is it could numb people to injustice – which indicates the possibility of a negative side effect of mindfulness.
Intrigued by this possibility, as part of an international team of co-authors based in Australia, Greece, and Singapore, Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources Jochen Reb decided to embark on a comprehensive research project to shed light on the issue.
Speaking to the Office of Research, he explains: “Most people perceive mindfulness as leading to greater self-awareness and self-regulation. This is why the practice of mindfulness has been used to reduce stress and enhance well-being following the widespread success of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme.”
He adds: “As mindfulness can reduce the reactions and negative feelings of being stressed or overwhelmed, it is quite possible that it can also temper negative emotions in the face of injustice. Since not much research has been conducted in this area, we wanted to be one of the first researchers in the world to examine this issue.”
He continues: “The other reason for embarking on this research was to increase our understanding of self-transcendence, which is another outcome of mindfulness practice.
“Self-transcendence means going beyond a narrow egocentric perspective on the world, feeling empathy and displaying behaviours for helping other people including third parties whom one might or might not know. These behaviours are characterised by a concern for the rights, feelings, and welfare of other people.”
The research project was centred on the question: “Does mindfulness numb or enliven people’s response to third party injustice, such as observing another person being unfairly mistreated or framed for a mistake that they did not make?”
To answer the question, Professor Reb and his three collaborators designed a robust research project comprising four separate studies covering multiple countries, contexts, and research designs.
The research project took over three years to complete and is now available in the prestigious Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes journal.
The thinking behind conducting a total of four studies was to uncover evidence on whether mindfulness can lead more conclusively to concern for others who are being treated unfairly.
In this research project, Professor Reb collaborated with Adam A. Kay, Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland Business School; Theodore Masters-Waage, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at INSEAD; and Pavlos A. Vlachos, Associate Professor ALBA Graduate Business School, The American College of Greece.
The research design
The first two studies were field studies whereas the latter two studies were experiments conducted in the laboratory.
Study 1 was centred on measuring the daily state of mindfulness in supervisor responses to observing justice violations by their subordinates. This study was conducted in the UK. The sample size consisted of 147 supervisors with an average age of 38 years.
Study 2 examined how mindfulness affected consumer reactions to perceived corporate social irresponsibility. 435 people participated in this study and the average age of the participants was 35 years.
Study 3 was an in-person laboratory experiment with a modified ultimatum game. It was conducted in Singapore to ascertain if mindfulness would heighten concern for others, especially in cases of moderate unfairness. The sample included 477 undergraduate students with an average age of 21 years.
Finally, Study 4 was an online experiment that examined responses of people witnessing third-party injustice after a mindfulness intervention. A total of 773 people in the UK with an average age of 29 years participated in the study.
Insights from the research
Contrary to the dissenting view that mindfulness numbs people to injustice, the four studies showed that mindfulness enhances the moral outrage experienced when seeing others being treated unfairly, and subsequently, the punishment of the perpetrator of the injustice or mistreatment.
No bystanding behaviour, i.e., the greater the number of people present, the less likely people will help a person in distress, was observed in all four studies.
This effect was successfully replicated across the studies among the different participants from the different countries who were subjected to the different contexts and research designs.
Contributions of research
“To my knowledge, this is one of the pioneering research studies that investigates whether more mindful people are more likely to say or do something if they were to observe another person being unfairly treated”, observes Professor Reb, who is also the Director of the Mindfulness Initiative @ SMU.
“This significant finding has got me to rethink the mindfulness training courses we offer at the Mindfulness Initiative @ SMU”, he says.
“Most of our courses are designed to help individuals or teams to be self-aware or to self-regulate so that they can better manage stress, make better decisions, or enhance their well-being.
“Given so much focus on sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and governance), we are thinking of designing courses to enhance self-transcendence so that organisations can leverage these trained mindful resources to address the ESG priorities, especially the social aspect,” he added.
Mindfully outraged: Mindfulness increases deontic retribution for third-party injustice
Mindfulness is known to temper negative reactions by both victims and perpetrators of injustice. Accordingly, critics claim that mindfulness numbs people to injustice, raising concerns about its moral implications.
Examining how mindful observers respond to third-party injustice, we integrate mindfulness with deontic justice theory to propose that mindfulness does not numb but rather enlivens people to injustice committed by others against others. Results from three studies show that mindfulness heightens moral outrage in witnesses of injustice, particularly when the injustice is only moderate.
Although these findings did not replicate with a mindfulness induction, post-hoc analysis in a fourth study reveals that measured state mindfulness perhaps heightens moral outrage when observers have a weak deontic justice orientation.
In documenting this moral enlivening effect, we demonstrate that mindfulness – measured as a state or trait – leads people to exact greater deontic retribution against perpetrators of third-party injustice.