Mindfulness and Mindlessness
By Ellen Langer

Editor's note: Ellen Langer, a full professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University, is the author of Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, 6 other academic books and over 200 research articles that explore her interest in the illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory.. In her recently published book, On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (2005), she brings together her two lives, artist and psychologist.

Before the airport in Provincetown, MA. was renovated, a large glass wall looked out over the runway. Waiting for a friend to arrive, I asked the person behind the counter when the flight from Boston was expected. She said it should be on time. There was no one else either in the airport or the surrounding area. I was less than two feet from her when the plane in full view arrived. Rather than lean over and just tell me that was it, she announced the arrival over the public address system filling the empty room with the information.


Many other examples of Ellen Langer's art work can be found on her web page.


I frequently found myself frustrated. People did not seem to be acting in a way that I thought was sensible. When I moved from New York City to Cambridge Iíd notice things like lines at the bank. In one line there would be two people and in others there would be five or more. Why didnít they join the shorter line? Why were smart people not making use of the information available to them? Was I at times acting this way as well? Indeed I was. What I realized, though, was that in a different context our behavior made sense. Here it appeared mindless.

Many experimental investigations followed to assess how mindlessness comes about and how pervasive it may be. Mindlessness comes about in two ways. Either through repetition or on a single exposure to information. The first case is the more familiar. Most of us have had the experience, for example, of driving and then realizing, only because of the distance we have come, that we made part of the trip on "automatic pilot," as we sometimes call mindless behavior. Another example of mindlessness through repetition is when we learn something by practicing it so that it becomes like "second nature" to us. We try to learn the new skill so well that we donít have to think about it. The problem is that if weíve been successful, it wonít occur to us to think about it even when it would be to our advantage to do so.

Context and Perspective versus Rule and Routine

We also become mindless when we hear or read something and accept it without questioning it. Most of what we know about the world or ourselves we have mindlessly learned in this way. An example Iím particularly fond of is of my own mindlessness that I wrote about in The Power of Mindful Learning. I was at a friendís house for dinner and the table was set with the fork on the right side of the plate. I felt like some natural law had been violated. The fork "goes" on the left side! I knew this was ridiculous. Who cares where the fork is placed. Yet it felt wrong to me, in spite of the fact that I could generate many ways it was better for it to be placed on the right. I thought about how I had learned this. I didnít memorize information about how to set a table. One day as a child, my mother simply said to me that the fork goes on the left. Forever after that is where I am destined to put it, no matter what circumstances might suggest doing otherwise. I became trapped without any awareness that the way I learned the information would stay in place in the future. Whether we become mindless over time or on initial exposure to information, we unwittingly lock ourselves into a single understanding of that information.

When we are mindless, we are trapped in rigid mindsets, oblivious to context or perspective. When we are mindful we are actively drawing novel distinctions, rather than relying on distinctions drawn in the past. This makes us sensitive to context and perspective. When we are mindless, our behavior is rule and routine governed. Essentially we freeze our understanding and become oblivious to subtle changes that would have led us to act differently, if only we were aware of them. In contrast, when mindful, our behavior may be guided rather than governed by rules and routines, but we are sensitive to the ways the situation changes.

For those of us who learned to drive many years ago, we were taught that if we needed to stop the car on a slippery surface, the safest way was to slowly, gently, pump the brake. Today most new cars have anti-lock brakes. To stop on a slippery surface, now the safest thing to do is to step on the brake firmly and hold it down. Most of us caught on ice will still gently pump the brakes. What was once safe is now dangerous. The context has changed but our behavior remains the same.

I learned that horses donít eat meat. I was at an equestrian event and someone asked me to watch his horse while he went to get him a hot dog. I shared my fact with him. I learned the information in a context-free, absolute way and never thought to question when it might or might not be true. This is the way we learn most things. It is why we are frequently in error but rarely in doubt. He brought the hot dog back. The horse ate it.

Absolute versus Conditional Language

When information is given by an authority, appears relevant, or is presented in absolute language, it typically does not occur to us to question it. We accept it and become trapped in the mindset, oblivious to how it could be otherwise. Authorities are sometimes wrong or overstate their case, and what is irrelevant today may be relevant tomorrow. When do we want to close the future? Moreover, virtually all of the information we are given is given to us in absolute language. A child, for example, may be told, "A family consists of a mommy, a daddy and a child." All is fine until daddy leaves home. Then, just like where the fork goes, it wonít feel right to the child when told, "We are still a family." Instead of absolute language, if told that one understanding of a family is a mother, father, and a child, the problem would not arise if the circumstances change.

Language too often binds us to a single perspective with mindlessness as a result. As students of general semantics tell us, the map is not the territory. In one of our studies, Alison Piper and I introduced people to a novel object in either an absolute or conditional way. They were told that the object "is" or "could be" a dogís chew toy. We then created a need for an eraser. The question we considered was who would think to use the object as an eraser? The answer was only those subjects who were told, "It could be a dogís chew toy." The name of something is only one way an object can be understood. If we learn about it as if "the map and the territory" are the same thing, creative uses of the information will not occur to us.

Much of the time we are mindless. Of course we are unaware when we are in that state of mind because we are "not there" to notice. To notice, we would have had to be mindful. Yet over thirty years of research reveals that mindlessness may be very costly to us. In these studies we have found that an increase in mindfulness results in an increase in competence, memory, health, positive affect, creativity, charisma, and reduced burnout, to name a few of the findings.

Much of the early research I conducted on the topic was with elderly populations. In many studies we found that simply providing opportunities for these adults to experience novelty resulted in dramatic improvements in well being. In fact we found that increasing mindfulness by providing choice or simply instructing people to think in novel ways about familiar things had the effect of increasing longevity.

One way to break out of our rigid mindsets is to meditate. Meditation, regardless of the particular form, can lead to a post-meditative mindfulness. Meditation can be found in all cultures. In Eastern meditation such as Zen Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation, typically the individual is to sit still and meditate for twenty minutes twice a day. If done successfully over time, the categories we mindlessly committed to start to break down. Many Westerners have trouble sitting still for ten minutes once a day, no less twenty minutes twice a day. The path to mindfulness that we have studied may be more congenial to those in the West. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. In our work we provoke mindfulness by active distinction-drawing. Noticing new things about the target, no matter how small or trivial the distinctions may be, reveals that it looks different from different perspectives. When we learn our facts in a conditional way, we are more likely to draw novel distinctions and thus stay attentive to context and perspective.

Most aspects of our culture currently lead us to try to reduce uncertainty: we learn so that we will know what things are. Instead, we should consider exploiting the power of uncertainty so that we can learn what things can become. Mindfulness that is characterized by novel distinction-drawing or meditation that results in post-meditative mindfulness will lead us in this direction.