Contemplative practices such as mindfulness, lovingkindness, and self-compassion may have different effects on humans, and these differences may become obscured when they are combined in interventions. Certain practices may prove more effective than others in remedying specific types of mental and physical health problems.
Petzold et al. [Scientific Reports] compared the immediate mental effects of using two different types of contemplative practice apps: a mindfulness meditation app and a social-emotional app.
The researchers randomly assigned 212 German-speaking Berlin residents (average age = 44 years; 73% Female) to use either a mindfulness meditation app or a social-emotional Affect Dyad app. Participants in both conditions participated in 2.5-hour orientation webinars and proceeded to 10 weeks of app use. Participants used the apps six days a week, and on the seventh day of each week participated in 2-hour on-line group coaching sessions.
The mindfulness app contained 12-minute guided breath-focused, sensory, and open monitoring meditations. Mindfulness coaching sessions emphasized bodily and sensory awareness, dealing with difficult emotions, and cultivating an attitude of dignity and respect towards oneself.
The Affect Dyad app paired participants with another participant to discuss two recent events—one that elicited difficult emotions and one that elicited gratitude—and describe how those emotions affected their bodies. Participants spoke for 6 minutes while their partner listened without interruption, and then switched roles.
Affect Dyad coaching sessions emphasized social connectedness, non-judgmental listening, bodily awareness, dealing with difficult emotions, and cultivating care and gratitude.
Participants rated their thoughts and affect prior to and after daily app sessions. Thoughts were rated for temporality (about past, present, or future), social orientation (about self or other) and emotional valence (positive or negative). Affect was rated for emotional valence and intensity. The data enabled researchers to compare immediate changes in thought and affect resulting from app use and analyze group differences in these changes. These were immediate mental changes due to engaging with the app and not long-term results from engaging in these interventions over a period of 10 weeks. There were no significant between- or within-group long-term changes in thought and affect.
The results showed that mindfulness meditation app group significantly reduced future-oriented, negative, and other-oriented thoughts while increasing positive affect and affect intensity.
In contrast, the Affect Dyad app group significantly reduced future-oriented thoughts, increased past-oriented and other-oriented thoughts, and raised positive affect and affect intensity.
Self-oriented thoughts increased for both groups but did so significantly more for the Affect Dyad group compared to the mindfulness group.
The researchers interpreted these results as showing that mindfulness meditation app reduces thinking and improves mood through “calming the mind,” whereas the Affect Dyad app increases past-, self-, and other-directed thoughts and improves mood through enhancing social connection and caring. While both apps showed substantial immediate short-term effects, it is unclear whether they yield meaningful long-term effects.
Smartphone apps are becoming an increasingly important way people engage with contemplative practices—meditation apps now have 185 million users—and this study’s combining of daily app practice with weekly on-line coaching seems one promising way to scale-up engagement with these practices.
Petzold, P., Silveira, S., Godara, M., Matthaeus, H., & Singer, T. (2023). A randomized trial on differential changes in thought and affect after mindfulness versus dyadic practice indicates phenomenological fingerprints of app-based interventions. Scientific Reports.
Link to study