Some types of human behavior are habit-like. That is, an individual will respond to a stimulus with little-to-no awareness of the reward for performing the behavior. Other responses appear to be more intentional and goal directed. That is, an individual acts with conscious awareness of the relationship between the behavior and likely rewards.
Mindfulness training may make people more sensitive to and aware of reward contingencies, thereby giving them greater control over their behavior.
Chen & Reed [Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry] performed an experiment to see whether a brief mindfulness intervention could make an operantly conditioned behavior less like habitual and more like goal-directed behavior. Goal-directed behaviors are more under conscious control, more easily guided by verbal behavior, and more easily deliberately modified.
The researchers randomly assigned 52 meditation-naïve college undergraduates (average age = 20 years; 64% female) to a mindfulness, mind-wandering, or “no treatment” condition. The mindfulness condition involved 15 minutes of breath-focused meditation after one-time brief verbal instruction. Mind-wandering participants were told to “let their mind wander” for 15 minutes. “No treatment” participants were given 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted (look at their phones, read, rest, etc.).
After the 15 minutes were up, participants engaged in a conditioning “game” on a computer. The aim of the game was to earn as many points as possible by pressing a computer space bar, but participants were not informed about how many or what frequency of space bar presses would earn points and had to learn the optimal strategy by experience.
The researchers compared rates of responding to random ratio versus random interval reward schedules following a mindfulness, mind-wandering, or control intervention. Ratio schedules provide rewards after a set number of responses, while interval schedules provide rewards for responses after a set time interval has elapsed.
Behavior typically occurs in bursts of activity called “bouts.” The initial response at the onset of a bout (“bout-initiation”) is “habit-like” in that it is relatively insensitive to reinforcement schedules.
Responses after a bout has already begun (“within-bout” behavior) are more sensitive to reinforcement schedule and more goal directed. Within-bout response rates are higher during ratio than interval reward schedules, while bout-initiation rates are the same for either schedule. The researchers sought to discover whether mindfulness training could make bout-initiation responses more sensitive to the influence of reward schedule.
Participants started off with 100 points and pressed the computer space bar to earn additional points. Each space bar press cost 1 point, but if they were on a trial for which a reward was available, the space bar press earned 40 points. There were four eight-minute periods of play with each period divided into 4 minutes on a ratio schedule followed by 4 minutes on an interval schedule.
The changeover from ratio to interval was signaled by a color change in a box on the computer screen. The number of reward points available within each 4-minute interval schedule was yoked to the number of reward points received during the prior ratio schedule.
The results showed that, as expected, overall response rates were significantly higher during the ratio than during the interval schedule (η2p = .72) for all groups. Also, as expected, within-bout response rates were higher during ratio than interval without any between experimental group differences.
Most importantly, bout-initiation rates were the same for the ratio and interval schedules for the mind-wandering and control groups but not for the mindfulness group (η2p = .12). The mindfulness group alone had a significantly higher rate of bout-initiation responses to the ratio than the interval schedule (η2p = .26).
The study shows that a brief mindfulness meditation can make habit-like behavioral responses more sensitive to reward schedules. This supports the hypothesis that mindfulness increases awareness of previously unconscious reward contingencies related to performing a behavior.
The researchers did not check to see if there was a difference to the extent in which participants in different groups could verbalize their awareness of the reward contingencies in relation to their behavior.
Chen, X., & Reed, P. (2022). The effect of brief mindfulness training on the micro-structure of human free-operant responding: Mindfulness affects stimulus-driven responding. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.
Link to study