Saturday, October 13, 2018

Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making

By Sai Sun, Ziging Yao, Jaixin Wei, and Rongjun Yu
Summary and critique by Jillian J
Sun et al. present a collection of empirical findings on the observed effects of mediation on decision making, empathy, and prosocial behavior. They begin by giving a general definition of meditation-- a broad variety of practices designed to cultivate emotional balance and psychological well-being, including relaxation, the observation of one's own inner or out experiences, and the intentional self-regulation of attention (Lutz et al., 2008; Slagter et al., 2001; Awasthi, 2012, as cited by Sun et al., 2015).

Sun et al. divide their collection into non-social decision making and social decision making categories. They explain that non-social decision-making research centers on individual decision that are made based on the decision maker's own beliefs. In contrast, research on social decision making focuses on interactive decisions that are made based on group choices and the preferences of others (FEhr and Camerer, 2007; Sanfey, 2007; Rilling and Sanfey, 2011, as cited by Sun et al., 2015).

The authors thoroughly outline the specific brain activity researchers have observed in subjects who meditate vs those who do not, ultimately concluding that meditation-related experience can reduce impulsivity, pathological gambling, and decision biases in non-social decision-making (Sun et al., 2015). Meditation helps to control risky responses, habitual actions, temporal focus, and negative emotions.

A few weeks ago, our class participated in a game-theoretical exercise that involved imaginary monetary payoffs and two actors who could either share or steal the money. This article referenced a similar scenario wherein researchers found meditators are more likely to accept unfair offers than non-meditators because the meditation helps regulate negative emotions or cultivates compassion during social decision making.

For non-social decision making, the authors assert that mediation may lead to better decision making by promoting better emotion regulation. The studies they collected found that decision-makers who meditated were able to reach conclusion that were more reflective of their values and objectives which allowed them to better differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information, maintain goal awareness, and mitigate irrational behaviors.

The authors presented an inclusive and informative collection of studies on the effects of meditation on decision making. I'm skeptical of any research that finds loads of support, but decidedly less, if any, contradicting evidence. Maybe meditation really does consistently produce desirable effects for those who practice it. This article certainly leads me to believe that. But I wonder if the emotionally regulated, non-biased, thoughtful person meditation supposedly creates is always what we want. If you think your adversary is of the non-meditating variety, perhaps you'd want to have a non-meditator on your side who can provide a more accurate insight into what action the adversary is likely considering.


  1. Jillian - Loads of great stuff in here. I would argue that the value of meditation is much less effected by your adversary as some of the previous methodologies were. Meditation is just a way to train your brain to better parse reality. So in some ways, meditation may help improve being able to "think like their opponent." Someone who does not practice meditation wouldn't be any more insightful regarding adversarial action as a practicing meditator, they would just possibly possess the same undesirable attributes.

    1. I think I agree with you, but I wonder if you could elaborate on what you mean by "possess[ing] the same undesirable attributes". Do you mean the remaining biases and obstacles practicing meditators have and face? If I follow your comment, meditators and non-meditators would have the same biases and obstacles, but the meditators would be more likely to effectively parse through those elements.

  2. I know that there are different forms of meditation used for different types of self-improvement. I believe depending on the form of meditation practiced, that may vary whether one can position themselves into the mindset of the adversarial role. Did the authors discuss any specific types of meditation in this context, or were they referring to meditation in general?

    1. They did not discuss meditation in the context of putting oneself in an adversarial role. They did, however, acknowledge that there are many forms of meditation and presented a few such forms: mindfulness meditation, concentrative meditation, transcendental meditation, and Buddhist meditation. In their review they focused on literature regarding mindfulness meditation, adding that that sometimes included compassion meditation and loving-kindness meditation.

  3. Jillian, while I value you your critique, I think that the logic behind it is slightly misguided. If we consider meditation as an analytic technique, based on our limited reading on the subject, it can't and shouldn't be grouped into the same (sub)category that we have used thus far. As an analytic methodology, meditation is focused on the analyst rather than the adversary. Like Chelsie said, forms of meditation are used more often as a self-improvement tool. This tool in the hands of a calibrated and experienced analyst would then serve as a force multiplier for your analysis. If we take the literature summarized on this blog as the basis for our limited understanding, it seems as though there is some compelling evidence that meditation is a powerful technique for balancing and focusing the analytic process by removing psychological limiters such as heuristics and biases. A clearer mind could theoretically help an analyst determine the validity of information, whether it is deceptive, etc...

  4. Jillian- You referred back to a couple of weeks ago with the game theory exercise and how mediations would make people feel compassion and split the prize. When we did our exercise on intuition, one of the ways they suggested improving your intuition is to use mediation. Do you think mediations can be applied to other techniques as well or just techniques that rely heavily on intuition?