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Mindfulness training does not foster empathy, and can even make narcissists worse

17 May 2017

Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions.

Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?

In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally.

People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people.

As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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