By Georgia Jackson, University Communications and Marketing
Imagine you’re a gazelle on the savannah and a hungry lioness saunters into view. Odds are, whatever it was you were doing — and whatever knowledge you might have had about your surroundings — faded from your mind the moment you caught sight of the predator’s confident lope. And now, all you can focus on are her white teeth and hungry eyes.
According to Lisa Penney, a stress researcher and professor of management in the School of Information Systems and Management in the Muma College of Business, stressful situations — like facing down the unblinking gaze of a hungry predator — can significantly impair decision-making abilities by hindering the brain’s ability to process information and weigh the options.
“It’s called ‘premature closure’ in the neuroscience literature, and it’s more likely
to happen when we’re stressed,” Penney said. “We make a knee-jerk decision based on
our first impression without a more thorough assessment of what’s going on. We don’t
While a healthy fight-or-flight response may be just the thing to save the gazelle from becoming lunch, the same can’t be said of most human interactions, and many of the most mundane of human experiences — like receiving an email or a new assignment at work — can be colored by stress.
“If we’re under stress, we’re likely to read quickly and zero-in on the worst piece of that email — or what we think is the worst piece. And then we get upset and react to that,” Penney said. “And sometimes when we knee-jerk react, we have to spend a lot of time backtracking when we realize, ‘Oh, I totally misunderstood that. I jumped to the worst possible conclusion, and I didn’t even see all the other details that tell me this isn’t so bad after all.’
We could spare ourselves a lot of trouble if before we knee-jerk react, we stop, take a breath, and ask ourselves, ‘OK, what’s this really saying? What else is here?’”
The power of mindfulness
Penney received support from the University of South Florida Institute of Applied Engineering to investigate whether mindfulness — a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment and acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts and physical sensations without judgment — might be an effective intervention for improving decision-making under stressful conditions. She suspected it would.
“Mindfulness is a metacognitive skill that’s about being aware of where your attention is and thinking about thinking,” Penney said. “We tend to spend most of our time on autopilot, unaware of where our attention is focused and run around by our thoughts and feelings. With mindfulness practice, we begin to understand that you are not your thoughts; you are the person who is aware of your thoughts. And that little bit of space is what gives you the ability to choose where you focus your attention and gain perspective to see things a little bit more clearly.”
Penney had witnessed the power of mindfulness in her own life and in the classroom,
where, a few years prior, she’d begun incorporating a short, guided mindfulness meditation
into the start of class with the help of Headspace, an app that provides everyday
mindfulness tools. For five minutes, Penney’s students would put their electronic
devices away and listen to the voice of
an experienced teacher encourage them to focus on their breath.
Notice how, as you breathe in, the body expands, the voice might say. Notice how, as you breathe out, the body softens. The voice might then guide the students to close their eyes. Rather than the mind leading the breath, the voice might say, allow the breath to lead the mind. The voice might then guide the students to place their hands on their stomachs and follow the rise and fall of their body. Allow your thoughts to come and go, the voice might say.
“Mindfulness is about learning to self-regulate our attention,” Penney said. “The breath is used as an object of attention. When your mind wanders, which it inevitably does, simply notice that it’s wandered and bring your attention back to the breath.”
Penney saw an immediate return on her students’ test scores.
“Mindfulness is a tool that can help people improve wellness, but I think it’s also something that has the potential to improve performance outcomes,” Penney said. “There’s a lot of research showing that mindfulness helps to alleviate stress. And if stress impacts decision making, maybe mindfulness as an intervention can also help people to make better decisions.”
In the lab
In the Customer Experience Lab, a multi-disciplinary research and training facility on the Tampa campus, Penney randomly sorted participants into two groups. The first received an eight-minute mindfulness intervention while the second experienced eight minutes of mind wandering. Participants in both groups were then invited to play multiple rounds of Train of Thought, a video game designed by Lumosity to challenge players by dividing their attention across multiple tasks.
“It’s an adaptive game, meaning that it’s designed to be stressful and to push you outside of your comfort zone,” said Penney, who measured the electrical conductivity of participants’ skin — referred to as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) — while they played the game. “The better you do, the more challenging it gets. But not so challenging that you give up.”
According to Penney, the pilot data1 were “pretty encouraging.”
“The trend is in the right direction,” she said (Figure 1). “The folks in the mindfulness intervention scored higher on average, which suggests that they were capable of taking in and processing more information to make better and more effective decisions than those in the in the control condition.”
Preliminary results also indicated that participants in the treatment group may have performed better because they experienced less physiological stress on average as the game grew more challenging compared to those in the control group.
“Mindfulness doesn’t mean that you don’t feel anything. It’s just means that the feelings — the anxiety, the fear — there’s room for it to go,” Penney said. “With mindfulness, instead of stressful feelings dominating our attention and controlling our actions, we can acknowledge them and notice what else is present so we can respond more wisely.”
Penney is living proof of the adage, "research is me-search." Growing up, she experienced intense feelings of stress, frustration and anger.
“I realized I needed some way to cope with those feelings,” Penney said. “Because being really reactive was causing me more problems than it was solving.”
Penney hopes her research will inspire individuals to practice mindfulness in their personal and professional lives — whether that means dedicating 15 minutes a day to mindfulness meditation, seeking out a dedicated app like Headspace or incorporating what Penney calls “micro practices” into their routines.
“If I’m brushing my teeth and I notice my mind wandering, I bring my attention back to just brushing my teeth. If I’m washing the dishes, I’m just washing the dishes. If I’m washing my hands, can I just wash my hands?” Penney said. “It’s not necessarily a big thing. It’s lots of little things that, when done frequently, add up.”
Penney has plans to continue collecting data in the Customer Experience Lab, where she will replicate the study under different conditions. She also intends to conduct a field study to test whether mindfulness intervention improves employee performance.
“We are living in stressful, rapidly changing times. Effectively solving the problems we face requires us to see the bigger picture clearly — something that we struggle to do when under stress. Mindfulness has the potential to help us see clearly so we can respond more effectively,” said Penney.
Whether or not that can be demonstrated empirically is the question her research is attempting to answer. And the work is just beginning.