What a spicy new study can teach us about caring less

Think about the last time someone cut you off, or criticized your work, or was just rude for seemingly no reason. How do those moments make you feel? If you’re like the rest of humanity, probably a bit miffed! But what if those things could bother you less? Or, even better, what if there was a way to get people to be less mean?

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That’s where meditation comes in. Science shows that meditation can help us be more compassionate, but that’s not really the same as being less aggressive. Could meditation also help us to be less reactive toward negative feedback? Could you study a real-time provocation that typically evokes aggression to see if meditation helps? That’s where the hot sauce study comes in. And this one is a little spicy.

Forty-six participants were assigned to either use Headspace for three weeks or to an “active control condition” (in this case, solving logic problems.) Then, they were brought into a lab and told they were doing a speech and language test and were asked to give a 2-minute speech on their life goals to another person (an actor.) After their speech about their future goals, the actor provided harsh feedback such as “waste of my time listening to you,” or “I wasn’t impressed.” (Ouch!) The participants were then asked to prepare a taste sample for the person who provided their feedback. They were given lemonade powder, chocolate syrup, and hot sauce, and they could use as much or as little as they wanted. They were also told the person would have to eat the entire taste sample they provided and that the person did not like spicy food. So naturally, aggression was measured by how much hot sauce they used in the sample.

If you’re thinking that sounds like joke science, it’s not; this design with hot sauce being used as a proxy for aggression is actually a scientifically validated study design. The hot sauce "taste sample" experiment is used in many studies to assess aggressive behavior. And while it still may sound like a game you play with villainous siblings, the results are incredible: “3 weeks of daily meditation practice substantially reduced aggressive behavior.” The results showed that those participants who used Headspace for three weeks prior to the provocation were 57% less aggressive and reactive toward the negative feedback. The study authors believe that meditation may actually enhance a desire to avoid suffering, even for others.

Of course, all studies have their limitations, and in this study one such limitation is the absence of a passive control group (i.e., where participants would experience a provocation without having taken part in any type of training.) As always, the best research is usually more research — but imagine being less reactive to negative feedback. While sometimes a level of vindication and varied forms of justice can feel good, being less reactive could help you keep your cool in meetings, in front of your kids, and maybe even free you up to be less afraid of what criticisms might come when you put yourself out into the world. For me personally, I’m just hoping the next time I let someone into the flow of traffic and don’t receive a wave, that I can just let it go. Keep that hot sauce for myself.

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Participants who used Headspace for three weeks were 57% less aggressive and reactive toward negative feedback.

Kelton Wright

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