Decision making may be improved with mindfulness meditation

Harold Mandel's picture

Meditation is generally very beneficial for many dimensions of well being. A great advantage of meditation to help you relax and feel good is that meditation helps you to avoid taking drugs for these problems, which often have troubling side effects. Meditation has also been found to help control blood pressure. Recent research shows that mindfulness meditation also helps to improve your mind.

Researchers investigated the effect of mindfulness meditation on decisions dealing with unrecoverable prior costs, reported the journal Psychological Science. Unrecoverable prior costs were referred to as a sunk-cost bias by the researchers. The researchers conducted four studies with the results suggesting that increased mindfulness reduces the tendency to allow unrecoverable prior costs to influence current decisions.

Study 1 demonstrated the positive relationship between trait mindfulness and resistance to the sunk-cost bias. Studies 2a and 2b were lab experiments which examined the effect of a mindfulness-meditation induction on increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias. In Study 3, the researchers examined the mediating mechanisms of temporal focus and negative affect, and they observed that the sunk-cost bias was lessened by drawing one’s temporal focus away from the future and past and by lowering state negative affect, both of which were accomplished with mindfulness meditation.

According to this new research at INSEAD and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, one 15-minute focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices, reports the Association for Psychological Science. These scientists studied what they see as “throwing good money after bad,” which as they see it is driven by what behavioral scientists call the “sunk-cost bias”. This refers to situations where people have trouble cutting their losses, and they do such damaging things as:

1: Hold on to losing stocks too long


2: Stay in bad relationships

3: Continue to eat large restaurant meals even when they’re full

Researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, lead author on the new research, has said, “Most people have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes.” These people do not want to feel that their actions have been wasteful or that the initial investment they made was a loss. It has been observed that paradoxically this type of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in their attempts to regain their initial investment or to try to break even.

Hafenbrack and co-authors found that mindfulness meditation, which nurtures awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, may assist in counteracting this deep-rooted bias. Hafenbrack said, “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.’”

In one of the online studies, American participants reported about how much they generally focus on the present moment, and they also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios. One sunk-cost scenario dealt with whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for at a time when illness and bad weather made it not likely they would enjoy themselves. It was observed that the more people generally focused on the present moment, the more they reported that they would ignore sunk costs. In all of their studies the researchers found that mindfulness meditation increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

Co-author Zoe Kinias has explained how the debiasing effect of mindfulness meditation in sunk-cost situations occurs. First, a psychological shift associated with meditation which reduced how much people focused on the past and future, led to less negative emotion. The lowered negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs. Co-author Sigal Barsade has shared thoughts that
mindfulness meditation is therefore very practical. These findings hold great promise for research on how mindfulness can influence emotions and behavior, and how employees can use this to feel and perform better.

I have observed that people become increasingly interested in what meditation has to offer for their health when facts dealing with the positive effects of meditation are shared. The growing problem of deaths from overdoses and suicides associated with drugs to relax has generated more interest than ever in what meditation has to offer. This new research showing meditation may also help people focus better and make better decisions regarding possible financial losses is significant, and should be shared. It is very aggravating to "throw good money after bad money" and the finding that mindfulness meditation can help with this problem is important.