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It’s encouraging to know that merely paying attention to the details of your environment can make you a little more rational.Illustration by yulianas / Shutterstock

Would you like to be more rational? Of course you would. Who doesn’t want to behave and think more reasonably? Good news: New research, from Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, suggests mindfulness, or at least an aspect of it, can help. By “mindfulness”—a feature of Buddhism for thousands of years, and a subject of scientific investigation for a few decades—most people mean a mental state you can be in. Let’s try.

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Pay attention to your current sensations—the feeling of your back against a chair, or the weight of your phone in your hand. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings flitting in your mind. Don’t “judge” them. Merely notice that they’re there. If you find yourself bringing past or possible future events into your imagination, let those drift off, and attend again to your present sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Not too difficult, right? Being mindful for a few seconds is easy. Being mindful for an hour is very difficult.

It appears that mindfulness reduces cognitive bias, but these results need to be interpreted carefully.

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One way to encourage people to be more mindful is to ask them to try to notice more things, and one way to measure mindfulness is to measure their ability to do so. Langer and her colleague Philip Maymin, of Fairfield University, used this aspect of mindfulness to try to reduce that familiar enemy of rationality—cognitive biases. There are names for over 100 of the systematic ways we think about the world irrationally. But it is likely that many are multiple names for the same underlying psychological process. (The tendency to give new names for things that already have names my colleague and I playfully call the McKee-Davies bias, which might be the first bias to be named as a result of itself.)

Maymin and Langer randomly divided 109 people into a “mindless” control group, a “low-mindful” group, and a “mindful” group. The low-mindful group chose their favorite of two random-dot patterns with subtle triangles. The mindful group looked at two slightly-less random images, and spotted hard-to-find differences between them. Then they looked at two nearly identical images of a fruit pile at once, and tried to spot which fruit, from one of the piles, was missing. Maymin and Langer measured people’s mindfulness using a survey, specifically a 14-item measure that focuses on flexibility of thinking and noticing new things (an admittedly Western conception of mindfulness).

The results confirmed that the mindful group, as a result of the attention they paid to their task, was actually mindful, and the mindless and low mindful groups were not. 

The people in the mindful group also became more rational, in terms of bias. Maymin and Langer quizzed them on a bunch of questions measuring 22 cognitive biases that scientists have established. These included the conjunction fallacy (thinking that the amount of something specific is greater than the general category, like Republican bankers are more common than bankers), and the gambler’s fallacy (thinking that, after flipping a coin and getting “heads” a few times, “tails” will be more probable than 50 percent on the next roll). They found that the mindful group showed improvement on 19 out of the 22 biases. 

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It appears that mindfulness reduces cognitive bias, but these results need to be interpreted carefully. For one thing, although it purports to be about mindfulness in general, it is not clear the study’s intervention and mindfulness measure get at what people often take mindfulness to mean. For example, the training involved asking people to look for differences between photographs, and the Langer Mindfulness Scale, which the researchers used as a measure for mindfulness, asks questions about engagement, seeking novelty, and producing novelty. Although scientists have validated this measure, and found that it correlates with many things we would hope mindfulness would, neither the intervention nor the scale addresses thinking about the future, judgment of thoughts, focus, or mindfulness meditation (the practice of doing nothing but sitting, or sometimes walking, and paying attention to the here and now). So, this study does not show evidence that your rationality is improved by being mindful in the sense of how you go about dealing with your own thoughts. 

It might be better to interpret these findings as showing that cognitive bias can be reduced by encouraging people to pay closer perceptual attention to their environment—an important aspect of mindfulness, which many people often think of as a stress reducer that, practiced regularly and enough, can lead to a happier life.

It’s too bad people generally aren’t very mindful. A 2010 study found that people’s minds wandered 47 percent of the time, and the only activity that people reliably focus on is making love. If you’re pretty well-trained in mindfulness meditation, you can mindfully do anything. 

Is it better to be mindful? There is some evidence that, in general, people are happier if they are thinking about what they’re doing, even if that thing isn’t any fun, like washing the dishes. However, there is also evidence that thinking about happy things from your past (nostalgia) increases pain tolerance, positive mood, empathy, and creativity, and reduces anxiety, boredom, and stress. So, though mindfulness is generally good, it’s perhaps not something to strive for at every moment. When vacationers look forward to their trips, for example, they’re a little happier. These results show that sometimes thinking about the past and the future can make you happier.

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It’s encouraging to know that merely paying attention to the details of your environment, what Langer calls “active noticing,” can make you a little more rational.

Jim Davies is a professor at the Department of Cognitive Science at Carleton University. He is the author of Imagination: The Science of Your Mind’s Greatest Power and Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make us Laugh, Movies Make us Cry, and Religion Makes us Feel One with the Universe. He is co-host of the award-winning podcast Minding the Brain. His new book, Being the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are: The Science of a Better You, comes out in February 2021.

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