Background: Arguments for including mindfulness instruction in higher education have included claims about the benefits of mindfulness practice for critical thinking. While there is theoretical support for this claim, empirical support is limited. The aim of this study was to test this claim by investigating the effects of an online mindfulness intervention on executive function, critical thinking skills and associated thinking dispositions.
Method: Participants recruited from a university were randomly allocated, following screening, to either a mindfulness meditation group or a sham meditation group. Both the researchers and the participants were blind to group allocation. The intervention content for both groups was delivered through the Headspace online application, an application which provides guided meditations to users. Both groups were requested to complete 30 guided mindfulness meditation sessions across a 6 week period. Primary outcome measures assessed mindfulness, executive functioning, critical thinking, actively open-minded thinking and need for cognition. Secondary outcome measures assessed wellbeing, positive and negative affect, and real-world outcomes.
Results: In a series of full-information maximum likelihood analyses, significant increases in mindfulness dispositions and critical thinking scores were observed in both the mindfulness meditation and sham meditation groups. However, no significant effects of group allocation were observed for either primary or secondary measures. Furthermore, mediation analyses testing the indirect effect of group allocation through executive functioning performance did not reveal a significant result and moderation analyses showed that the effect of the intervention did not depend on baseline levels of the key thinking dispositions, actively open-minded thinking and need for cognition.
Conclusion: No evidence was found to suggest that engaging in guided mindfulness practice for 6 weeks using the online intervention method applied in this study improves critical thinking performance. While further research is warranted, claims regarding the benefits of mindfulness practice for critical thinking should be tempered in the meantime.
Trial registration: The study was initially registered in the AEA Social Science Registry before the recruitment was initiated (RCT ID: AEARCTR-0000756; 14/11/2015) and retrospectively registered in the ISRCTN registry ( RCT ID: ISRCTN16588423 ) in line with requirements for publishing the study protocol.