Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Being Present in the Face of Existential Threat

A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines the impact of mindfulness on mortality salience. Mortality salience refers to being made aware of death--one's own specifically. There's a body of researching suggesting that being made aware of our own mortality increases distress and influences us to behave more defensively than when we're not confronted with the fact that our time here is limited.

The first author is Christopher Niemiec from the University of Rochester, who, I believe, is a doctoral student there. I recall hearing about Niemiec's study on mortality salience and mindfulness three years ago. I tried unsuccessfully to track it down at the time. It looks like the reason for that is that the research question grew into a pretty major undertaking. The article is authored by seven researchers from five universities and encompasses seven different studies with samples from three universities--all the king's horses and all the king's men!

The researchers measured trait mindfulness; that is, they looked at naturally occurring levels of mindfulness in their samples, and no one was exposed to any practices aimed at increasing mindfulness as part of the study. Mindfulness was measured by the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003). The MAAS is a uni-dimensional measure of mindfulness and was, to my knowledge, the first self-report measure of mindfulness. It may be downloaded here.

As this article covers seven studies, it would be too time-consuming to discuss them all in detail. Consequently, I'll mainly focus on the results. Overall, people higher in mindfulness were less likely to behave in more reactive and defensive ways when made aware of their mortality. For example, after being exposed to questions that made them consider their own death, less mindful participants were more likely to demonstrate: 1.) a pro-United States bias when evaluating essays they were told were written by foreigners; 2.) a pro-Caucasian bias when given a hypothetical court case file involving White and Black defendants; 3.) harsher judgment of a hypothetical social transgression. The fourth study ruled out the possibility that the differences in the first three studies were related to a shared worldview by people higher in mindfulness. The remaining studies found that people higher in mindfulness responded less defensively to threatening and aversive experiences and were less likely to suppress death-related thoughts.

This is a lot to digest. In a nutshell, the seven studies suggest that people lower in mindfulness respond more defensively to potentially threatening situations--even hypothetical ones--when made aware of their mortality. By contrast, those higher in mindfulness are less affected, if not unaffected entirely. Mindfulness appears to act as a buffer against mortality salience.

It should be noted, as the researchers do, that this study involved no manipulation of mindfulness. Therefore, we cannot say for certain that greater mindfulness causes these differences. To test the latter, we would need a study that manipulates mindfulness (e.g., has people participate in mindfulness training). Also, the entire sample consisted of undergraduate students. Nonetheless, the study adds to the growing body of literature showing that more mindful people are less swayed by unpleasant experiences. (For example, check out a recent post on a study using a 15-minute mindful breathing induction, and one on a pilot study of a Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention program.)

To download a copy of the article, click on the full citation below:

Niemiec, C.P., Brown, K.W., Kashdan, T.B., Cozzolino, P.J., Breen, W.E., et al. (2010). Being Present in the Face of Existential Threat: The Role of Trait Mindfulness in Reducing Defensive Responses to Mortality Salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 344-365.


  1. I looked at the MAAS for the first time just now and had a good chuckle at the contradiction involved in self-reporting on mindfulness. The more mindful one is, the more one is aware of one's un-mindfulness. By the same token, the less mindful could be expected to have less awareness that they are unmindful. I can see using this scale for before and after intervention measurement, but it seems questionable for a study like this.

  2. I agree, Jeff. One of the major weaknesses of self-report measures of mindfulness is that they presume we're mindful of our mindlessness.

  3. I also agree with the criticisms of the MAAS by Beeson and Thompson. The reasons are similar to those given by Muriel Lezak over 30 years ago for her excluding self report measures of executive functioning. And it may be connected to the possibility which I just realized a couple of days ago, that mindfulness itself is one of the sub abilities of "executive function".


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