Researchers have conceptualized mindfulness as being a trait—a quality inherent in an individual—or a state, which can be arrived at through meditation. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Andrew Hafenbrack and colleagues used these two concepts to investigate whether the enhanced present-moment awareness that comes with mindfulness would reduce “sunk-cost bias”—that is, the tendency to continue down a path once we have already made some sort of investment of time, money, or effort.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. © Dan Archer

By definition, sunk-costs are things that have already happened in the past, not the present or future. For example, maybe you find yourself several years into a relationship and realize that you and your partner have irreconcilable differences—but instead of breaking up, you stick with the partner since you’ve shared so many years together. Or, perhaps, one day you realize that your job is not the right one for you. But you don’t look for another job or go back to school, because your current position has consumed so much of your time and effort.

It is understandable that we’d want to see a return on such investments, and we might hope that holding on just a little longer will yield results; at the same time, feeling like one has wasted time, money, or effort can bring about negative emotions or moods that interfere with decision making. Because mindfulness is, by definition, oriented toward present moment and has been shown to reduce negative emotional states, the researchers hypothesized that mindfulness may help people reduce the tendency to fall into the sunk-cost fallacy.

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In a series of studies, researchers found that increased mindfulness—through a brief 15-minute breath meditation—reduces the tendency to think in terms of sunk-costs.

In the first study, 178 adults completed online questionnaires, which measured trait mindfulness—the ability to non-judgmentally focus on the present moment—as well as their resistance to sunk-cost bias. Results showed that those who reported greater trait mindfulness also reported be less influenced by past investments in making decisions.

In the next two studies, the researchers wanted to see if state mindfulness—that which is cultivated through practice—could cause a reduction in the sunk-cost bias.

First, undergraduate participants were brought into the research laboratory and were randomized to either the meditation manipulation condition, where they participated in either a 15-minute mindful-breathing exercise or a mind-wandering control condition, where participants were allowed to think of whatever came into their minds. Those in the mindfulness condition reported greater present-moment attention and resisted the sunk-cost bias more than those in the control condition.

In the final study, the researchers took this research a step further and examined the specific mechanisms involved in state mindfulness reducing the sunk-cost bias.

One-hundred-and-fifty-six adults completed a series of online questionnaires, which measured mindfulness, decision-making about sunk-costs, and positive and negative emotions. Participants were again randomized to either listen to 15 minutes of mindfulness-mediation or the mind-wandering condition—the same ones described above. And, indeed, results suggested that mindfulness mediation decreased focus on the future and past, which reduced negative moods and emotions, which in turn led to reduced sunk-coast bias.

Taken together, these findings suggest that even brief doses of mindfulness mediation may assist in improving decision-making processes and outcomes.

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