Research

Meditation Makes People Feel Better. Can It Help You Work Smarter, Too?


Meditating can ease stress, insomnia, and depression and may even help ward off disease. Now there’s evidence it can produce better business decisions.

A new study suggests meditating can help business people change course when initial plans don’t work out. People often stick with decisions because they don’t want to feel wasteful or admit that their initial investment was a loss, says Andrew Hafenbrack, a doctoral student at INSEAD in Singapore and the study’s lead author. Behavioral scientists call this “sunk-cost bias”—also known as throwing good money after bad.

Participants in the study were asked to make decisions in business-related scenarios. In one, participants assumed the responsibilities of a company executive who has spent $9 million of a $10 million development budget on a new product, only to discover that a competitor has developed a similar product that performs better and costs less.

Before deciding whether to spend the remaining $1 million, one group of participants was guided through a 15-minute meditation exercise in which they were asked to focus on the sensation of breathing. The goal was to achieve a state of mindfulness, defined as focusing on the present and clearing the mind of other thoughts.

After meditating, 53 percent said they would scrap the project. That’s the rational decision under the circumstances, according to the researchers. Among the group that didn’t meditate, only 29 percent said they would pull the plug.

INSEAD Assistant Professor Zoe Kinias worked on the project with Hafenbrack and Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade. Meditation, she said, worked in two parts: “It reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

To be sure, the participants were University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, not real executives. Still, Hafenbrack says the findings add to growing evidence that meditation can improve job performance. A pair of recent studies from Singapore suggest that when supervisors rate highly on assessments of mindfulness, their employees tend to perform better and be more satisfied with their work. Another study of chain restaurant waiters found that workers with high levels of mindfulness generally got better performance ratings, even when taking into account experience and physical vigor. They were also less likely to be thinking about quitting.

This is all quite trendy in management circles. Some companies, such as Google (GOOG), have developed in-house mindfulness training programs. But Hafenbrack says that until now most evidence of workplace benefits has been largely anecdotal. As that changes, scholars press their case. “Organizational scholars and managers should care about mindfulness,” wrote Erik Dane of Rice University and Bradley Brummel of the University of Tulsa, who did the study with the waiters. “It relates to an outcome associated with the bottom line.”

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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