Our ability to get along well with others depends on being able to read social cues. When a social cue such as a facial expression has an unclear meaning, people are often biased in the way they interpret it. For example, when viewing a facial expression of surprise, some people tend to interpret the expression positively (the person received a gift) while others tend to interpret it negatively (the person witnessed an accident). However, facial expressions alone do not indicate their cause, so the viewers’ assumptions are a function of their unique cognitive bias.
Biases in attributing emotion and cause are tied to brain activity. Negative attributions are associated with activity in emotional centers of the brain (the amygdala), while positive attributions are associated with problem solving regions (the frontal lobes). Negative attributions tend to be more automatic, but positive attributions require more cognitive processing and emotional regulation.
Harp et al. [Journal of Experimental Psychology: General] tested the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on negative and positive biases in response to viewing surprised faces.
The researchers relied on three samples: a cohort of 58 MBSR participants (mean age = 42 years; 90% white), and two independent comparison cohorts drawn from two separate longitudinal studies (Cohort 1: mean age = 45 years; 93% White; Cohort 2: mean age = 40 years; 93% White). MBSR was delivered using the standard 8-week group format with the 8-hour retreat.
Participants in all three cohorts were assessed on an ambiguous social cue task at five separate time points over 16 weeks. For the MBSR cohort, this occurred at baseline, after the first MBSR class, before the last MBSR class, after the last MBSR class, and 8 weeks after the last class. During these assessment sessions, participants viewed computer-presented photographs of happy, angry, and surprised faces and asked to categorize the expressions as positive or negative by clicking on the words “positive” or “negative” with a computer mouse.
The primary outcome measure was the percent of surprised faces that were judged as negative. Participants also completed the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) at baseline, 8 weeks, and 16 weeks.
The results showed the MBSR group’s judgments of surprised faces became significantly more positive over the course of training and that this shift towards positivity continued to grow though during the two months post-training. This shift to increased positivity was significantly correlated with increased non-reactivity on the FFMQ (r =-.38). This kind of shift towards positivity did not occur in the two untreated comparison groups.
An analysis of computer mouse movements found that the MBSR group’s computer mouse trajectories for surprised faces became significantly more direct over the course of training suggesting the training was helping participants to override their initial negativity bias.
The study shows MBSR decreases participants’ bias to view ambiguous social cues in a negative way, and that this decreased response bias is associated with increased mindful non-reactivity. The study is limited by the absence of a randomized control group.
Harp, N. R., Freeman, J. B., & Neta, M. (2022). Mindfulness-based stress reduction triggers a long-term shift toward more positive appraisals of emotional ambiguity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Link to study