Landing : Athabascau University

Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance

Sadly published behind a paywall (but, happily, also available at SciHub) this is a fascinating sequence of studies from Hafenbrack & Voh that, firstly, appears to demonstrate that mindfulness (meditative practice) actively reduces motivation to perform a wide range of cognitively taxing or repetitive tasks, then shows that (despite this, and contrary to what might be expected) the loss of motivation has little or no effect on performance. The studies seem well-designed and well integrated, involving a very wide range of participants across continents, a wide variety of activities, and lots of good meta-analysis to pull them together. I'll talk about why there are none-the-less very good reasons to be cautious in wholeheartedly accepting the results later on but, even with my provisos, the fact that such an effect can be seen at all is really interesting. Hafenbrack & Voh hypothesize (and provide evidence) that, because mindfulness tends to result in improvements in many other areas of cognition and performance, the overall effect is more or less neutral on actual task performance. The researchers partly explain this by citing other studies showing meditation-mediated improvements in empathy, reading comprehension, resilience to unpleasant images, resistance to distraction, negotiation effectiveness, and improved health indicators, though they only attempt to find out about reduced levels of distraction in their own experiments. They conclude that the effects of mindfulness on performance are complex and nuanced, and that employers and organizers of meditation/mindfulness sessions should therefore look carefully into their timing in the context of the working day.

What I find especially interesting about this study are the suggested reasons that mindfulness might impair motivation, which provided the initial justification for the research:

  1. mindfulness tends to focus on valuing the 'now' rather than dwelling on the future.
  2. mindfulness aims to reduce arousal (though, interestingly, many forms of it used in the Western mainstream actually seem to stoke the ego).

I'm not totally convinced by (1), inasmuch as it seems to me that the researchers believe that motivation is about desiring (or wishing to avoid) a future state, which is only partly true, notably in the case of simple extrinsic motivation (especially when externally regulated, as in these studies). It is far less likely to be true in the case of intrinsic motivation. Indeed, high levels of intrinsic motivation tend to be very focused on the 'now' and, in many cases, can result in a state of flow that can be very closely akin to mindfulness. For me, for instance, playing music can (sometimes) be a highly meditative pursuit with very little future focus. The same can (sometimes) be true when I get into the flow of most things, from writing to sailing to playing with my grandson. It can even be true for at least a couple of the tasks the researchers used to test their theory, when actively chosen by people as fun things to do rather than given to them as part of a research study.

That mindfulness may reduce arousal, and so in turn reduce motivation, is more believable though, again, it depends very much upon context whether that affects task performance positively or negatively. Sticking with a music theme, some pieces require intense concentration, physical effort, and mental agility, especially when learning a technically demanding new piece so, though it is usually bad to be tense when attempting such things, excessive relaxation might not be too great either. However, other kinds of music require you only to be at one with the sound and the instrument, and being in a relaxed mental state is really good for that. It is not a coincidence that many religious rituals involve music-making - especially that involving repetitive rhythmic sounds, chants, and drones - because it can lift you to exactly that detached, calm, yet spiritually heightened state of mindfulness. I find that the most fun and rewarding musical activities tend to be those which combine both modes at once - things like counterpoint or blues, in which the patterns are relatively easy to learn but remain infinitely rich in their expression. This hints that the real world of motivation, and other mental states, is way more complex than experiments like this suggest. I use music as a fairly unequivocal example, but similar diversity lies even in mundane bureaucratic form-filling, and certainly in complex creative behaviours like teaching or research.

Methodological concerns

One central problem with both hypotheses on reasons for reduced motivation, and with the researchers' discussion and conclusions, is that they mistakenly assume motivation to be one thing - a very behaviourist orientation that looks at simple effects and ignores their complex causes - when, in reality, it is many things, often all at once, and the kind and strength of motivation varies enormously from one context to the next, often on a minute-by-minute basis, typically changing as a direct result of performance on a given task as well as other extrinsic factors. This study almost completely conceals such diversity.

Another problem is that the seemingly innocuous term 'participants' subtly and all too easily shifts from its actual meaning (the averaged behaviours of a particular group of people) to 'all people' in the description of the resultsm,the discussion, and the conclusion. It's like saying 'ripe bananas are yellow' because (on average) if you examine any given square centimetre of a ripe banana in a batch, the chances are that it will mostly be yellow. This is despite the fact that virtually no bananas are wholly yellow, some are mainly red, a lot are partly green, and many are mainly black or brown. It bothers me that the consequent leap from 'on average, people tend to be less motivated to perform researcher-imposed tasks after meditation' to 'meditation impairs task motivation' is huge and unwarranted, especially in the absence of a truly plausible (or at least generalizable) model of why this might be so. In fairness, this is exactly the same form of flawed inductive thinking used in the vast majority of experimental studies in education, sociology, psychology, and related disciplines the world over. Knowing average tendencies can be extremely useful in all sorts of ways but to slip from 'on average, X' to 'X' as this and countless other studies do, is dangerous and counter-productive, especially when combined with a slip from 'is' to 'ought',  when suggesting ways the research can be applied.  This kind of experimental study is equally bad at discovering reasons for those averages because (unlike less fuzzy pseudo sciences) the range of possible inputs and outputs is vast, and highly interconnected: there's irreversible complexity in the whole thing. Such studies can be at least partly saved by including rich qualitative information and analysis, but there's none of that here. Smedlund offers a far subtler and more thorough critique of this kind of psychological experiment that I highly recommend anyone engaged in such studies should read.

Another way of interpreting the results

I like this paper and, for all my concerns, have found much that is thought-provoking within it. However, the simplistic implied behaviourist model of motivation and the lack of qualitative information that would help to better interpret the results does raise more questions than it answers. It also strikes me that, rather than drawing conclusions about ways to change the behaviour of people in organizations, it would make far more sense and have far more lasting value to look at ways to change the tasks expected of them so that they are (ideally) better aligned with intrinsic motivation, or (where that is difficult or impossible) are less externally regulated. Assuming at least a glimmer of truth in these findings (and there is more than a glimmer) I would hypothesize that, under such circumstances, mindfulness would be highly beneficial. Like so many things relating to human activity, it ain't what you do it's the way (and the where, and the when, and the why) that you do it that matters most.


  • Joh,

    I really appreciated your detailed response to this paper,especially your comments on this study employing a behaviorist model, as well your discussion the experiences connected with mindfulness.



    Gerald Ardito July 4, 2018 - 11:32pm

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