Mindfulness Measured by Paper and Pencil Test does Not Predicts Real World Behavior

Mindfulness Measured by Paper and Pencil Test does Not Predicts Real World Behavior


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“I’m recognizing as I write this that even this moment will come and pass, and as I feel that, I notice some relief in my chest and my shoulders widening and releasing to let my heart relax. I’m being mindful that my day is winding down, and the thought is hitting me: “the work before me will get done.”- Elizabeth Ann Rue


A prerequisite in science is that in order to study something you have to be able to reliably and validly measure it. With many concepts such as mindfulness, depression, and anxiety that reflect subjective states, there are currently no objective means to measure them. Measurement then falls to some kind of after the fact test or to a self-report. Traditionally, mindfulness has been measured with paper and pencil psychometric tests, such as the Five Facets of Mindfulness Questionnaire. They ask the participant to answer the question in regard to their overall, general state of mindfulness.  It is unclear whether these subjective questionnaire reports are reliable, accurate, and honest and whether they relate to actual behavior of people in their natural, everyday environments. Hence it is important to investigate whether the results of these self-report tests actually predict what the people will do in their everyday life.


In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness in daily life: A naturalistic observation study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6261408/ ), Kaplan and colleagues performed two studies to determine first what people expect the behavior of mindful people to look like and second whether actual behavior conforms to these expectations. In a first study they recruited adults online and had them complete measures of their perceptions of the behavior of mindful people. They found that “laypersons assume that mindfulness relates to (1) attention to sensory perceptions, (2) emotional positivity, (3) quality social interactions, and (4) a prosocial orientation in daily life.”


In a second study, they recruited adults and randomly assigned them to either a control condition or to receive 8 weeks of meditation training they were measured before and after training for mindfulness and personality characteristics and wore a recording device over a weekend that recorded 50 seconds of sounds every 9 minutes. The sound samples were transcribed and analyzed for amount of time talking to others, positive and negative words, perception words (e.g., hear, see, feel, soft, loud), substantive, meaningful, conversations, and prosocial orientation (gratitude, affection, gossip, complaining).


They found that the level of mindfulness of the participant was positively related to the perceptual orientation, use of words indicating sensations, but was not reliably associated with positivity, negativity, social interactions, prosocial, or antisocial interactions. Hence, the actual observations of the participants behavior were not in line with the expectations people have about the behavior of mindful people.


The results suggest that mindful people are more tuned into their perceptual worlds, which is an expectation about the present moment awareness of mindful people. But, in other ways, people high in trait mindfulness were not especially socially, emotionally, or prosocially oriented. This may indicate that mindfulness measured with paper and pencil tests is not a valid indicator of actual mindful behavior. On the other hand, they may indicate that peoples expectations about the observable behavior of mindful people are incorrect.


This study is important in that it investigated actual, objectively defined behaviors by people that are expressed in their natural, everyday environments. This kind of analysis may prove to be a better actual measure of mindfulness than questionnaires and tests. It remains for future research to investigate this more thoroughly. But this study opens up a new and potentially important realm for the investigation of mindfulness.


How often have you rushed out the door and into your day without even thinking about how you’d like things to go? Before you know it, something or someone has rubbed you the wrong way, and you’ve reacted automatically with frustration, impatience, or rage—in other words, you’ve found yourself acting in a way you never intended. You don’t have to be stuck in these patterns. Pausing to practice mindfulness for just a few minutes at different times during the day can help your days be better, more in line with how you’d like them to be.” – Parneet Pal


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary


Kaplan, D. M., Raison, C. L., Milek, A., Tackman, A. M., Pace, T., & Mehl, M. R. (2018). Dispositional mindfulness in daily life: A naturalistic observation study. PloS one, 13(11), e0206029. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0206029



Mindfulness has seen an extraordinary rise as a scientific construct, yet surprisingly little is known about how it manifests behaviorally in daily life. The present study identifies assumptions regarding how mindfulness relates to behavior and contrasts them against actual behavioral manifestations of trait mindfulness in daily life. Study 1 (N = 427) shows that mindfulness is assumed to relate to emotional positivity, quality social interactions, prosocial orientation and attention to sensory perceptions. In Study 2, 185 participants completed a gold-standard, self-reported mindfulness measure (the FFMQ) and underwent naturalistic observation sampling to assess their daily behaviors. Trait mindfulness was robustly related to a heightened perceptual focus in conversations. However, it was not related to behavioral and speech markers of emotional positivity, quality social interactions, or prosocial orientation. These findings suggest that the subjective and self-reported experience of being mindful in daily life is expressed primarily through sharpened perceptual attention, rather than through other behavioral or social differences. This highlights the need for ecological models of how dispositional mindfulness “works” in daily life, and raises questions about the measurement of mindfulness.



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