Got Guilt?

Mindfulness meditation can ease a remorseful conscience—at the cost of making amends

Most people who practice meditation do so as a means of reducing negative emotions. And a new study co-authored by Andrew Hafenbrack of the University of Washington Foster School of Business confirms that mindfulness meditation can be an effective way of mitigating one particular negative emotion: guilt.

But there’s a downside to this, according to Hafenbrack, an assistant professor of management and organization at Foster.

Washing away guilt through inward-facing forms of mindfulness meditation—such as focused-breathing—reduces the motivation to make amends with people you have harmed.

“Our study demonstrates that a state of mindfulness cultivated via focused-breathing meditation can dampen the relationship between transgressions and the desire to engage in reparative prosocial behaviors,” Hafenbrack says.

Mindfulness in the mainstream

Mindfulness meditation is a stress-management practice that cultivates non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, often by directing attention to the physical sensations of breathing. While initially inspired by Buddhism, a secularized form of mindfulness is now popular throughout the Western world.

Andrew Hafenbrack

More than 54 million people have downloaded the Headspace smartphone app, for instance. And 52% of the 163 companies surveyed in 2018 by National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and Fidelity Investments had provided mindfulness training to their employees in the previous year.

There are many upsides to the practice. Mindfulness meditation is known to reduce negative emotions in general and make people more generous.

But some negative emotions can be useful to maintaining social relationships. Guilt, for example, arises when people have violated their own moral standards in a way that harms others. And feeling guilty typically leads to “reparative” generosity to make amends with the people one has harmed.

So, what happens if people meditate when they feel guilty? Does mindfulness still make people more generous when guilt is what would have motivated their generosity?

Reduced guilt, reduced atonement

Hafenbrack and co-authors Matthew LaPalme of Yale University and Isabelle Solal of ESSEC Business School sought to investigate these questions in a series of eight experiments with more than 1,400 participants in the United States and Portugal.

Their first study demonstrated that mindfulness reduces feelings of guilt.

Participants were randomly assigned to write about a past situation that made them feel guilty or write about their previous day. Then then listened to one of two recordings: a mindfulness meditation guide instructing them to focus on the physical sensations of breathing or instructions to let their mind wander (a control condition). Participants who had listened to the mindfulness recording reported feeling less guilt compared to those in the mind-wandering control condition, and this was true whether they had written about a guilty situation or their previous day.

The next group of studies established that, in relieving guilt, mindfulness meditation reduces the inclination to make amends for harming others.

In one, for instance, participants were asked to write about a time they had wronged someone and felt guilty about it. Then some were assigned to meditate while others were not. Afterward, both groups were asked to allocate a hypothetical $100 between a birthday gift for the person they had mistreated, a charity for African flood victims, and themselves. The meditating group allocated 17 percent fewer dollars to the birthday gift compared to those who had not meditated.

“The psychological process behind these allocation differences was reduced guilt,” Hafenbrack says.

Loving-kindness meditation

Of course, there are different forms of mindfulness meditation.

While focused-breathing meditation is the most popular form used in mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Google’s Search Inside Yourself, the study also explored “loving-kindness” meditation.

This form of meditation consists of imagery exercises that call to mind other people and evoke wishes that they will be happy, well and free from suffering.

In a final experiment, participants once again wrote about a time they had wronged someone and felt guilty, before listening to either a focused-breathing or loving-kindness mindfulness meditation recording. Participants in the loving-kindness condition reported higher intentions to contact, apologize to and make up with people they had harmed, compared to participants in the focused-breathing meditation condition.

“The difference here,” Hafenbrack says, “was explained by participants’ increased focus on others and feelings of love.”

Context is key

Negative emotions may not be pleasant to experience, he adds, but they can help us navigate social situations.

“This research serves as a caution to people who might be tempted to use mindfulness meditation to reduce emotions that are unpleasant, but necessary to support moral thoughts and behavior,” says Solal.

In the case of guilt and atonement, loving-kindness meditation appears to be most effective. “Loving-kindness meditation may allow people to have the stress-reduction benefits of meditation without the cost of reducing repair,” adds LaPalme, “because it increases focus on others and feelings of love.”

The collective narrative from these findings suggests that managers and practitioners should carefully consider the kind of mindfulness programs they promote or practice, especially if a goal is social—rather than just individual—health and harmony.

“Meditating for short periods of time is a tool that can make people feel better, like popping an aspirin when they have a headache,” Hafenbrack says. “We have a responsibility as researchers 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.”

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Guilt and Prosocial Reparation” is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.