Mindfulness & Making Up Your Mind

One 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make better decisions, according to new research from a team at INSEAD — a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi — and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The findings are published in the February 2014 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

A release from the association quotes lead author Andrew Hafenbrack as saying,  "Most people have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes. They don't want to feel wasteful or that their initial investment was a loss. Ironically, this kind of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in an attempt to regain their initial investment or try to 'break even.'"

Across a series of studies, Hafenbrack and co-authors found that mindfulness meditation, which cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, may help to counteract this deep-rooted bias.

"We found that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can encourage people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, while ignoring some of the other concerns that typically exacerbate the 'sunk cost bias,'" explains Hafenbrack. That phrase, used by behavioral scientists, refers to the trouble many people have in cutting their losses. You may hold on to losing stocks too long, or stay in a bad relationship, and or continue to eating large restaurant meals even when you’re full.

Hafenbrack and his collaborators conducted four studies to test the idea that mindfulness meditation could improve decision-making by increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias. In one online study, American participants reported about how much they typically focus on the present moment, and also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios — such as whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for when illness and bad weather made enjoyment unlikely — and then reported how much they would let go of sunk costs in each of them. The results revealed that the more people typically focused on the present moment, the more they reported that they would ignore sunk costs.