Does mindfulness in politics make any difference?

Flickr/Blue Coat Photos. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Improving democratic governance is a challenge that goes way beyond cultivating calm and compassion.

By Rachel Lilley and Mark Whitehead.

First published in openDemocracy’s Transformation section.


The widespread use of mindfulness to deal with anxiety, depression and a lack of compassion in schools, workplaces, local governments, health systems and politics is a ‘canary in the coal mine.’ It points to a significant problem in contemporary organizations. But what if the focus of mindfulness courses is wrong? Our research at Aberystwyth University on behavioural insights and policy making reveals that mindfulness can be better targeted at the causes of dysfunctional workplaces and, in doing so, the symptoms start to disappear.

In a series of articles on Transformation, Ron Purser argues that “McMindfulness” may be effective in managing stress but ignores the systems that cause these problems in the first place. Regulating emotions and developing self-compassion may help politicians and their staff be calmer, for example, and as a result to be better at their jobs. But do they go on to address the complex issues of poor government structures and under-resourcing which not only create stress but also contribute to short-sighted decision making, polarisation, and a lack of progress on wicked policy problems like climate change?

Purser accuses mindfulness enthusiasts of suffering from an enormous blindspot: their concern for personal regulation and moment-by-moment attention obscures the larger political and economic frameworks within which contemporary social problems emerge. Our research suggests another blindspot: carrying buddhist and therapeutic practices into institutions without fully understanding the broader issues at play, and hence, potentially serving to sustain a pernicious system.

At a meeting on ‘Mindfulness in Politics’ in Westminster in 2018, MPs like Tracey Crouch and Tim Loughton confirmed the calming and regulatory effects of these practices on their work. Crouch noted that at one particular high-pressure moment they had helped her avoid anti-depressants. “Mindfulness is calming,” she said, “it’s a way of dealing with my stress and anxiety.” What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that, as we found in our research, this approach targets the symptoms rather than the causes of stress, anxiety and division, ‘closing the barn door once the horse has bolted’ as the saying goes. The job of 21st century politicians and policy makers is to analyse and negotiate complex issues on the basis of poor quality information at high speed with multiple and diverse stakeholders. That leads them to make decisions without the time to understand the problems they’re trying to solve, whilst managing conflicting perspectives.

This is not a job they are trained to do. Ultimately it involves facilitating individual and collective thinking, and thus depends on understanding human cognition and emotion, reasoning and decision making. Our data shows that policy-makers work with such interactions for between 70% and 90% of their days, and the stress they experience is often rooted in the conflicts and overload imposed by political structures that are not designed to support effective, emotionally-intelligent relationship-building. With no training they are forced to work with theories of the mind that are intuitive, naive and outdated.

This situation is further compounded by the fact that government structures and processes are informed by a belief in an objective ‘rationality’ drawn from classical economic theory. Objectivity, honesty and integrity form a core part of the civil service code which informs these processes. But research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics suggests that such objectivity and rationality don’t actually exist, and certainly not in politics.

A recent European Commission report suggests that we’ve arrived at a defining moment in the way societies are governed: the abundance of information and misinformation, uncertainty and polarisation mean that new and more effective forms of democratic governance are needed now more than ever. The report argues that up-to-date advances in mind sciences must inform how we do politics and policy in the future, a challenge that goes way beyond understanding the effects of anxiety or cultivating compassion.

Our research used a programme called ‘Mindfulness Based Behavioural Insights’ to develop a better understanding of the mind, emotion/cognition, bias and decision-making in ways that go beyond current theories of ‘mindfulness-based cognitive therapy’ for stress (or ‘MBCT’). In most of these programmes the mind is presented as something which reacts to inputs from outside, so mindfulness is seen as a tool that helps us to regulate that response. But alternative evidence from neuroscience suggests that we are actually more predictive: we see what we expect to see, confirming what we already think to be true and reinforcing unhelpful beliefs and stereotypes. Cultivating non reactivity, calm and compassion is not enough to address these problems.

In the MBCT approach the mind is implicitly framed as something ‘individual,’ though with aspirations towards mental states that experience interconnectedness. However, other theories define the mind as something that is social, relational, cultural and historical, something which emerges through relationships and context. This alternative framing has been used successfully with Welsh Government Directors who have responsibilities for finance, health, climate change and social services. These are people whose decisions have real impact. They have little time to go on a contemplative journey towards peace and self-realisation, but they responded well to a scientifically-evidenced theory which presented the mind as fundamentally interconnected.

The programme we developed in Wales links mindfulness with behavioural theories to create a team-based inquiry into objectivity, perspective-taking, and the relationships between emotion/cognition and bias. Interestingly, the results showed that once people developed stronger capacities to do their jobs (as opposed to developing skills to help them deal with the stresses their jobs created), they felt less anxious and, according to pre- and post-programme surveys, were less stressed than others who had experienced standard mindfulness-based courses for stress reduction.

We used a social model of the mind, and interactive techniques, peer reflection and dialogue to explore how our views are filtered and biased, and how we often don’t see what is actually there in front of us in processes of political decision-making and governance, but rather what we think is there or what we feel. This is a major contributor to confirmation biases and problems of political polarisation and gridlock.

Following the programme many of the participants reported significant changes in their ways of working. One reflected that: “My personal take would be that I have felt unequipped to deal with those (relating, emotions, bias) sorts of things because so much of my professional training has been logic, evidence, rationality, objectivity, rules, procedures.”How often have I not read something and then drawn a conclusion that’s completely wrong,”said another.

As a result, participants started to listen to others and challenge themselves more openly. They reported having clearer conversations with colleagues, and being able to help others speak more honestly rather than creating situations in which people needed to defend their position at all costs.

Not surprisingly, they also reported saving time and building more collaborative ways of working. As one participant noted, contrary to their normal leadership style “I listened to their views first and decided that their approach was better than mine, so I didn’t need to intervene. This saves energy for me and them because they don’t have to push back against the position I had reached.”

They also understood emotions more effectively: “I have a narrative that enables me to understand what’s going on. I think I went with the emotional suppression before, but now it’s about noticing it [and] understanding what it is.”They then applied this understanding to changing how they worked. One director working on the implementation of climate change legislation noted that the programme had given her a framework to understand her own behaviours in relation to working with her team and “how you create behaviour change out there.”

Whilst standard MBCT for stress courses can improve working practices, there is little evidence that they change political cultures. Working with compassion and the sense that ‘we are all equal’ doesn’t reveal or challenge the in-group biases and emotional filters that misrepresent who and what we see. But a broader and deeper approach that integrates mindfulness with behavioural insights can be effective in informing culture change, as is happening now in parts of the Welsh Govenment. As one civil servant said: “That is the stuff that is going to make a fundamental systemic change that the First Minister is pointing us at; everyone needs to be taught the behavioural insights stuff as well as the mindfulness.”

As the field of mindfulness matures it needs to reflect on how its own history filters and biases its frames and narratives. It needs to allow for more analysis of the problems it’s being used to solve, and not assume that it provides ‘the answer’ just because it aims to ‘do good.’ It also needs to make room for new expertise and creativity to come up with different approaches so that politicians and policy makers are not just calm or compassionate, but better able to shift cultures and ways of working that are radically different in order to solve the wicked problems of our time.

Rachel Lilley can be seen talking about her work in Wales here.

Rachel Lilley
is a research-practitioner at Aberystwyth University working on the cognitive/emotional, social, relational and inter-relational capacities needed to address wicked policy issues like climate change and social inequality. Find out more at her website Predicting Mind.

Mark Whitehead is a Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth University. His research focuses on the impacts of the behavioural and psychological sciences on public policy.

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