Wednesday 3 April 2013

Mindfulness and Engagement: Lessons from Social Psychology

Two weeks ago, I attended a public lecture at the University of Melbourne, "Beyond Pleasure and Pain: Value from Engagement", where the notable Professor E Tory Higgins from Columbia University presented his theory of motivation. He proposed that there is more to the story of motivation than simply hedonic pleasure and pain, or the "carrot and stick" layman conception. While pleasure and pain determine the direction of the experience of value as positive or negative, strength of engagement intensifies these forces of attraction and repulsion, making life more "alive".

Sources of engagement include: (1) regulatory fit between the orientation and the manner of goal pursuit; (2) using the right or proper means of goal pursuit; (3) opposing something that interferes with the goal pursuit; and (4) experiencing an upcoming event (relevant to the current goal pursuit) as being real because of its high expressed likelihood.

He only had time to talk a bit about the first two sources, though, which I'll describe here. I'll also explain the relevance of this theory to mindfulness.

1. Regulatory fit

Regulatory fit occurs when, given a current orientation, the manner of goal pursuit "sustains" the orientation. It strengthens engagement by making what you are doing "feel right".

For example, those who have a promotion focus are focused on aspirations, advancement, accomplishments, gains, and moving from "0" to "+1". Eager strategies fit promotion. In contrast, those who hold a prevention focus are focused on responsibilities, safety, security, non-losses, stopping movement from "0" to "-1". Vigilant strategies fit prevention.

Prof. Higgins described his study (Higgins, Idson, Freitas, Spiegel, & Molden, 2003) where participants were measured on their habitual orientation to pursuing goals (promotion or prevention). They were then asked to choose between a mug and a pen. Following this, half of the participants were told to think about what they would gain by choosing the mug or the pen (an eager strategy), and the other half were told to think about what they would lose by not choosing the mug or the pen (a vigilant strategy). Participants who chose the mug were shown an envelope containing the price of the mug, and were asked to offer a price, with their own money, to purchase the mug. If the price was higher or equal to the amount in the mug, they would get the mug for the price they offered, otherwise they would not get the mug. Participants with good regulatory fit in the Promotion + Eagerness and the Prevention + Vigilant conditions offered around $4.70. However, participants offered significantly less money, around $3, for the mug when they were in conditions with poor regulatory fit; the Promotion + Vigilant and Prevention + Eager conditions. This provided support for the hypothesis that regulatory fit enhances perception of value.

In the lecture, Prof. Higgins discussed the practical implications, aside from marketing. In education and work, it's a common notion that the way to motivate children, students and subordinates, is to add pleasure to whatever they're doing. However, if fit is more important, this strategy could be mistaken. Higgins argues that adding reward is adding extrinsic motivation to the task, which undermines intrinsic motivation. People feel like they are now doing a task "in order to...".  Similarly, adding a "fun orientation" to an important task can actually make it a non-fit, reducing engagement and therefore motivation.

In this light, it makes sense that if meditation is an important undertaking (which I believe it is), then perhaps engagement is enhanced when the practice is pursued in ways that enforce this "seriousness". For example, I have a dedicated clutter-free area in my room for meditating, it is (generally) the first thing I do upon waking - it's something I wake up early for - and the last thing I do at night, and I keep track of my practice to stay accountable for it.

2. Use of proper means

Use of proper means is all about feeling like you are doing things the right way (although this doesn't necessarily have to be in an ethical or moral sense). In another study (Higgins, Camacho, Idson, Spiegal, & Scholer, 2008), participants who were manipulated to make decisions the right way ("You need to make your decision in the right way. The right way is to make a decision is to think about which choice has the better consequences") offered a higher price for a mug, $6.35, than those who were directed to make decisions focusing on the best choice ("The best choice is the choice with the better consequences"), $2.61, but this effect only applied to those who were strongly orientated towards doing things the right way.

So what does it mean to live a life the right way? Well, religious and political belief systems tell the believer which activities are proper to do each day, and carrying out these daily proper activities will strengthen engagement in what they are doing. Similarly, other world views or lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism, veganism, or being environmentally-conscious, just to name a few, are based on a belief that these choices represent the right way to live.

Finally, and most relevant to this blog, I asked Prof. Higgins a question about whether engagement would only be strengthened while specific activities were being carried out in the proper way, or whether it would strengthen engagement in life in general. He responded by saying that it would probably be the latter - and brought in the example of meditation, which was exactly what I had in mind! After all, mindfulness practitioners really do believe that living life mindfully, with moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness, is the right way to live, intensifying the experiences of life through increased purpose, attention and awareness. This awareness isn't limited to the meditation cushion - while we engage in life in formal practice, the point is to try and bring this awareness and engagement to experiences in every moment of everyday life.

I left the lecture feeling truly inspired, with a new perspective on motivation and the purpose of mindfulness. On a larger scale though, research like this really helps to clarify misconceptions about human psychology and motivation, to point us in a direction that really helps us to get more out of life.

If you found this interesting, the public lecture is available for public listening (audio only) here.


Higgins, E. T., Idson, L. C., Freitas, A. L., Spiegel, S., & Molden, D. C. (2003). Transfer of Value From Fit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1140-1153. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.6.1140

Higgins, E. T., Camacho, C. J., Idson, L. C., Spiegel, S., & Scholer, A. A. (2008). How Making the Same Decision in a "Proper Way" Creates Value. Social Cognition, 26(5), 496-514. doi: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.5.496

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