Designed to encourage empathy, the mental health training seems to make the self-absorbed behave even worse
At a time when mental health awareness is on the tip of the tongue of every politician, the concept of mindfulness has never been more in vogue.
So popular has mindfulness become that it is currently being written into the Junior Cycle curriculum in Irish schools, with the hope that it will help students prepare themselves for their lives to come.
Developing empathy is a central tenet of mindfulness training, with classes expected to encourage young people to share with each other, help others in need, and learn how to console those going through anguish. People who learn these skills are “mindfully aware,” and should become more robust at maintaining their own state of calm.
But according to a new study from the University of Amsterdam, mindfulness’s fostering that sense of empathy might not be as effective as once thought – and worse still, might even be creating a generation of narcissistic monsters.
While US president, Barack Obama poses with Jerry, a smart teddy bear designed to teach kids mindfulness techniques [Pool/ABACA/PA Images]
In her research, Anna Ridderinkhof and her team examined 161 adult volunteers, splitting them into three groups, which each person rating their own narcissistic and autistic level.
All previous research into narcissism suggests that those who feel superior to others and believe they are entitled to privilege and admiration tend to exhibit poor empathic skills. These people are less likely to recognise and share the emotional state of someone they interact with.
On the other end of the scale, those with autistic traits perform better at this ‘affective empathy,’ but have significant problems with ‘cognitive empathy’ – they find it much harder to tell what emotions other people are feeling.
In their experiment, the researchers asked one group to spend five minutes undergoing mindfulness training, focussing on their breathing, listening to their thoughts without judging them. A second group also took part in a relaxation exercise, to account for the role stress relief alone could play. The final group were told simply to let their mind wander.
Testing the volunteers, the researchers investigated how they performed at cognitive empathy, asking them to identify emotions from a series of photographs of eyes. Their affective empathy was assessed by analysing their response to a person who was socially rejected in a ball passing exercise.
After analysing their data, the University of Amsterdam team noted that, compared with the two other groups, non-narcissists in the mindfulness group showed some improvement – albeit slight – when it came to their sense of empathy. But those who self-identified as narcissists showed declines in their cognitive empathy.
Those with autistic traits show no variation when it came to the eye-reading challenge, but the researchers did note that they passed the ball more to the person who was being deliberately excluded.
As the volunteers in the mindfulness group were advised to not judge any of the thoughts they had during their session, the researchers thought this might have helped non-narcissists let go of their hang-ups. In doing so, they hoped these people would think more about the mental states of others.
“By contrast, it may have ironically ‘licensed’ narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self-aggrandising thoughts,” the study said.