Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can enhance attention and emotional regulation in certain practitioners, but can they also foster ethical behavior? Studies examining the effects of MBIs on helping behavior, cheating, generosity, compassion, or willingness to inflict harm have produced mixed results. Some studies show MBIs can facilitate prosocial behavior, while others suggest MBIs may make people more self-focused.
Feruglio et al. [Mindfulness] conducted a randomized, controlled study to discover whether a MBI could reduce lying for financial gain in a card game.
The researchers randomly assigned 69 Italian university students (average age = 26; 80% female) who had expressed an interest in participating in a MBI to either a MBI or waitlist control. The MBI was an on-line 8-week course modeled after the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction curriculum, delivered in 8 weekly 2-hour sessions via participants’ personal computers.
Each session included 30-minute guided meditations incorporating elements of breath-focused, body scan, and open-monitoring meditation. Participants were also instructed to engage in daily home meditation practice using a guided audio recording.
Participants were assessed before and after intervention using the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA) and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). They were also evaluated pre- and post-intervention on their willingness to lie while playing 48 hands of a computer-administered zero-sum card game against an ostensible live opponent, which was actually a computer algorithm.
Players were informed of the monetary value of each hand in the card game. The computer opponent initially chose a card, either the Ace of Hearts or Ace of Spades, which was concealed from the opponent player so it could not see the card’s face value. The Ace of Hearts always won. Participants, however, could see the card faces and choose to lie or tell the truth to the opponent about which card the opponents had selected and whether they had won. Players earned money for each hand they claimed to have won.
The results showed that the MBI group had significantly increased scores on the MAIA Self-Regulation (partial η2 = 0.33), Attention Regulation (partial η2 = 0.21), Body Listening (partial η2 = 0.14) and FFMQ Non-Reactive (partial η2 = 0.10) subscales more than the control group. Additionally, the MBI group showed decreased frequency of lying in the card game (d = 0.41), while the control group did not (d = 0.16).
More meditative practice minutes during the course was linked with less lying, but only among those MBI participants who scored at least one standard deviation above the mean on the MAIA Attention Regulation subscale.
The study demonstrates that a MBI can reduce deceit for minimal financial gain in a simulated card game. This decreased deceit is correlated with improved interoceptive awareness. Further, this reduction in deceit appears to be partly dependent on more minutes of meditation practice.
Study limitations include enrolling participants already interested in a MBI, the absence of an active control group, and the lack of a post-assessment to determine whether participants believed they were playing against a live opponent rather than a computer simulation during the card game.
Feruglio, S., Panasiti, M. S., Crescentini, C., Aglioti, S. M., & Ponsi, G. (2023). Training the Moral Self: An 8-Week Mindfulness Meditation Program Leads to Reduced Dishonest Behavior and Increased Regulation of Interoceptive Awareness. Mindfulness.
Link to study