What is it about?

Engaging in 8-15 minutes of mindfulness meditation, by focusing on the physical sensations of breathing, reduces how much guilt people feel. As a result, mindfulness meditation also reduces how much people make amends with others who they have harmed. However, loving kindness meditation, in which people envision sending well wishes towards other people, led to a higher desire to make amends. This was because loving kindness meditation makes people focus on other people (vs. focused breathing cuing focus on oneself) and increases feelings of love.

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Why is it important?

People seem to assume that the tendency for mindfulness meditation to reduce negative emotions is a good thing. However, there are many situations in which negative emotions provide useful information that we should listen to and learn from, such as when guilt makes us feel like we need to make amends with someone we have harmed. Normally, the act of apologizing or paying back the person we harmed is what reduces our guilt. But if we 'artificially' reduce that guilt by meditating it away, we may end up with worse relationships, or even fewer relationships. In general, our research cautions people against avoiding all negative emotions or thoughts. While some have viewed it as a panacea, mindfulness meditation is a specific practice with specific psychological effects. It draws attention to the present moment and away from stressful things in the past and future, reduces negative emotions, and induces calmness. For better or worse, focused breathing mindfulness meditation draws people’s focus inward to their own physical sensations and experiences, and away from other people. Even if people do so unintentionally, cultivating mindfulness can distract people from their own transgressions and interpersonal obligations, as well as occasionally relax one’s moral compass. We also suggest a solution in switching to loving kindness meditation because it can make people feel less bad and focus on the present moment, without having the risk of reducing the desire to repair relationships.


Our research unearths a way that we can delude ourselves that we should watch out for. We were inspired by how some of the people we know who talk about their interest in meditation are also flaky or oblivious to the needs of other people, and we wondered if these people represented coincidental anecdotes or whether they reflected a reliable psychological effect. Steve Jobs, one of the most prominent proponents of meditation among business leaders, also did not treat other people particularly well (and even denied paternity of a child he fathered, for example). Meditating for short periods of time is a tool that can make people feel better, like popping an aspirin when they have a headache. Pharmaceutical companies acknowledge on the bottle that there are side effects, but people still take medicine when the benefits are expected to outweigh the costs. The advice of behavioral scientists may be less regulated than in medicine. However, we have a similar responsibility to share not only the many positive effects of meditation, but also the inadvertent side effects, such as the potential for it to occasionally relax one’s moral compass.

Andrew Hafenbrack
University of Washington

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Mindfulness meditation reduces guilt and prosocial reparation., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000298.
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