Although behavior therapies are increasingly integrating mindfulness meditation, little is known about how this practice affects reward-based conditioning. Some research suggests that mindfulness can assist individuals in responding more rapidly to changes in reward contingencies, but it is not clear why.
One possibility is that people learn verbal rules that help them respond to specific reward schedules, and mindfulness enables people to let go of previously learned verbal rules that no longer apply when reward schedules change. Another possibility is that mindfulness helps people pay closer attention to the reward schedule that is currently in effect.
Reed [Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition] conducted four experiments to investigate how mindfulness affects responses to changes in reward schedule. Two different reward schedules were used in the experiments: 1) a random ratio (RR) schedule, which rewarded participants only after a certain number of responses, and 2) a random interval (RI) schedule, which rewarded participants only after a certain amount of time had elapsed. The RR schedule encouraged rapid bursts of responses, whereas the RI schedule encouraged participants to pause for a while after receiving a reward. All four studies used healthy, meditation-naïve participants drawn from a university psychology department.
The first study explored whether mindfulness could help people better differentiate between schedules—that is, to respond at higher rates during an RR schedule and lower rates during an RI schedule. Forty participants (58% male; average age = 21 years) sat at a computer and pressed a space bar with the goal of maximizing game points. Every participant completed 8 alternating RR and RI schedule trials. A yellow or brown screen icon appeared that indicated the trial was an RR or RI trial, but participants were not informed of what the color signified.
A rewarded trial earned participants 60 points, but each space bar press cost them one point. The RR schedule offered a reward after 20 space bar presses, whereas the RI schedule offered a reward for the first space bar press after a certain period of time had elapsed.
Prior to playing the game, participants were randomly assigned to a 10-minute mindfulness or relaxation intervention, delivered via audio recording. The mindfulness intervention asked participants to focus on their breath and return to it whenever their minds wandered. The relaxation intervention asked participants to relax and let their minds wander.
Both groups gradually increased their response rates during RR and decreased them during RI, but the mindfulness group showed a significantly greater differentiation between the schedules. This supports the hypothesis that mindfulness helps one pay better attention to reward schedules.
The second study investigated whether a mindfulness group would respond faster to a change in contingency schedule than a relaxation control. Thirty-two participants (75% male, average age = 21 years) were randomly assigned to a mindfulness or relaxation intervention. The experimental situation was the same as in study 1, except that the color icons associated with each schedule were switched midway through the game.
The results showed that, once again, the mindfulness group was better able to differentiate between the schedules than the control group. In addition, they responded faster to changes in reward contingency and to changes in the color signaling the contingency, compared to the controls.
The third study compared the effects of mindfulness versus a no-intervention control on the speed of contingency reversal learning using 32 participants (69% male; average age = 24 years). In this study, participants were asked to verbalize the rule they thought was in effect after each trial.
In study 3, participants first completed four trials of the game before experiencing the mindfulness or control intervention. They then played eight trials, as in study 2. The mindfulness group significantly outperformed controls in differentiating between the RR and RI schedules and accurately verbalizing the contingency in effect for each trial.
The forth study examined whether mindfulness works by promoting awareness of current contingencies or by reducing interference from previously learned contingencies using 80 participants (64% female; average age = 21 years). Participants were trained on an alternating RR/RI schedule until their response rate was higher during the RR schedule. They then randomly assigned to mindfulness or relaxation training. Half of each group play the game as noted before, while the other half played the game with the color icon signaling the reward contingency switched.
The results were consistent with the prior studies. The mindfulness group recognized changes in contingency faster and showed a more differentiated response to them than controls. Moreover, the mindfulness group responded appropriately to the changed contingencies after the icon switching faster than controls. The results support the hypothesis that mindfulness promotes situational awareness, leading to more appropriate responding to reward contingencies.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate mindfulness increases behavior differentiation between reward schedules compared to relaxation and no-treatment controls. Mindfulness also leads to faster learning of reward schedule switches. Finally, it appears to enhance performance by increasing present-moment awareness, rather than by reducing interference from previous learning. Although the study’s “relaxation” intervention conflates relaxation with mind-wandering, it does not alter the overall interpretation of the findings.
Reed, P. (2023). Focused-attention mindfulness increases sensitivity to current schedules of reinforcement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 49, 127–137.
Link to study