If you’ve ever been guilty of throwing good money after bad—still paying for that gym membership even though you haven’t seen the inside of a cardio room for months?—a few minutes of mindful meditation might help you make better decisions.
A study recently published in Psychological Science finds mindful meditation can help people overcome “sunk-cost bias,” a common psychological trap that causes people to perceive they have too much already invested in a situation to walk away. The fallacy often leads to us wasting time, energy, or money—maybe you continue to spend time with an energy-zapping friend just because you’ve known her since childhood, or you refuse to get rid of clutter in your home because you can’t stop thinking about how much you spent on those items.
In one experiment, researchers from INSEAD business school and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School had 57 college-aged students listen to a 15-minute recording. One group heard a meditation message that helped the students focus on their own breathing, while the other was encouraged to do free thinking, which is not a form of meditation but which mimics the way our minds work.
Next, they were asked to make a difficult business decision: Should they purchase a more efficient machine now for $10,000, even though they had just spent $200,000 for a custom-built model? The results were striking—78 percent of the mindful meditation group made the smart business decision and bought the better machine, while only 44 percent of the other group were able to overcome the sunk-cost bias. Three other studies conducted by the researchers had similar results.
Researcher Andrew Hafenbrack, a doctoral student with INSEAD, theorizes that mindfulness meditation works because it focuses our thoughts on the present instead of the past—enabling us to think about the best course of action right now rather than continuing to dwell on a past mistake. The practice might also help people take their mind off investments they can’t recoup.
“This distraction can also change people's emotions, which also partially accounted for changes in their decision making,” he says, adding that an ongoing meditation practice could lead to more long-term improvements in the way we reason through big choices.