Mindfulness meditation, the practice of clearing one’s mind of all other thoughts but the ‘present moment’, partly by focusing on the physical sensation of breathing, has long been associated with personal feelings of ‘wellbeing’ and positivity. But it has wider, more practical, benefits. New research suggests that leaders who use the technique are more likely to be resistant to the decision-making curse of ‘sunk cost bias’ — and, consequently, more likely to create value.
Sunk cost bias has been blamed for everything from disastrous military campaigns to over-budget public works and is widely acknowledged as a serious obstacle to effective decision-making. Defined as the “tendency to continue an endeavour once an investment in money, effort or time has been made”, it leads people to “throw good money after bad” rather than take the more rational course of cutting their losses.
Also known as the sunk cost effect and the sunk cost fallacy, it’s associated with both temporal and emotional ‘processes’. Put simply, the more people think about the past and the future (the more their minds wander from the present), and the more anxious and less positive they feel, the more vulnerable to it they become.
Given this, researchers from INSEAD and The Wharton School hypothesized that mindfulness meditation, which focuses attention on the present and has been shown to increase feelings of ‘wellbeing’, could help solve the problem of the sunk cost bias in decision-making. Their hypothesis was tested in three studies.
The first, an initial exercise, established the link between ‘mindfulness’ and reduced sunk cost bias. (‘Trait mindfulness’, higher natural ability to ‘regulate’ attention towards the present and avoid mind-wandering, was found to correlate positively with lower sunk-cost-bias risks.)
The second, consisting of two laboratory experiments based on two different decision-making tasks, showed that mindfulness meditation could increase resistance to sunk-cost bias.
The third, based on an online experiment and one of the decision-making tasks used in study 2, confirmed the ‘mediating mechanisms’ underlying the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation – i.e. drawing temporal focus away from the future and the past, and reducing negative ‘affect’ or mood.
One of the most striking things about the research was that the benefits of mindfulness meditation were easily — and quickly — won. In studies 2 and 3, volunteers were divided into two groups. One was led through a breathing meditation exercise, and the other — the control group — subjected to a ‘mind-wandering’ induction. Both were then asked to respond to the sunk-cost dilemmas. In all cases, the impact of mindfulness meditation was significant — and, in all cases, the mindfulness induction exercise was just 15 minutes long.
The researchers call for further investigations to establish the effects of long-term mindfulness training on the sunk-cost bias and what mindfulness meditation means for decision-making in general.
The studies point to the value of mindfulness meditation in professional life and suggest that businesses and other organizations would benefit from:
Given the ‘15-minute effect’, mindfulness meditation could be a particularly practical (i.e. quick and cheap) option for organizations keen to make their decision-making processes more robust and avoid cognitive biases. It should, though, be remembered that further research is needed into its benefits — and that effective decisions also depend on the ability to process the past and ‘model’ the future.
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