Poor Science Reporting... Again

In this article from Scientific American, the headline is “Mindfulness Training for Teens Fails Important Test”. This is the worst kind of sensationalized click-bait, and it’s shameful for Scientific American to resort in using it.

What is buried near the bottom of the article is this critical information:

“Before we reject mindfulness for adolescents altogether, it is important to consider a few limitations of the study. The traditional MBSR training that has been effective in reducing depression and anxiety in adults involves 20 to 26 hours of formal training, including one 6-hour session, 8 weekly 2-hour sessions, and daily 45 min practice sessions at home. By contrast, because the training offered by Johnson and colleagues was adapted to fit the school schedule, the sessions lasted only 35-60 minutes each, for a total of 4.5 – 8 hours of training. Johnson and colleagues also shortened the initial introductory session, which is designed to help participants understand why mindfulness can be beneficial. The participants also reported very low compliance rates with home practice (26 percent during the 8-week training period and 13 percent at follow up). All of this may well have undercut the potential benefits, and it is possible that a more intensive training intervention, with consistent home practice, could yield better results.”

Let’s be clear about this: the study itself fails to follow the program it’s attempting to examine by delivering one third of the formal training, and a quarter of the home practice. Equating this to surgery, this is like condemning kidney surgery in which the patient didn’t recover when they only went so far as to remove the diseased organ – and didn’t do the rest of the procedure, replacing it with a working kidney.


Thanks for pointing this out Ted, I too noticed that so few actually practiced. Why would Sc Am write an article about this is particular study is unclear to me, though sensationalized click-bait makes sense… Gus

Hi Ted, this reply might be late! I teach high school and middle school students mindfulness and though I agree with you that the article misrepresents the research in some ways, it does get to the core of the problem with teaching mindfulness in schools, student participation. I have had great success with some students but for most, the initial introduction is a little magical, and then when they find they need to be regular in the practice, the benefits are marginal. School systems have to decide whether time intensive programs such as these are worth the commitment. I tend to explain it to others as planting seeds hoping that exposure may lead to future use (I have found this to be so).

Personally, I welcome such articles because I feel if anything the reporting on mindfulness has been far more complimentary than the research suggests. All research is based upon self report either of the Dependent Variable (effects) or more problematically of the Independent Varaible (mindfulness practice), we have no way of knowing whether any mindfulness participant is actually making an effort to be mindful or engaging in the techniques.


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Hi, Jim, thanks for joining the conversation! I agree with you, and the concern about the state of the science is what prompted me to participate in this paper:

Yes, sustaining practice is an ongoing challenge, I suspect especially for younger folks with the tremendous world of distractions specifically targeting their attention. Mindful Schools and other programs that are tailored to meet those challenges are likely to have more success – however one might define that – than others not taking into account where teens are in their lives.

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The full journal article is not available yet from Public Med? I read a 01/01/2019 release date when I clicked the link. Is that correct or is there another way to access your article, Ted?

It was actually from last year, but here’s the full text attached.Mind_the_Hype.pdf (704.6 KB)

Thank you for the .pdf!

Thanks for the paper Ted, that is very useful for me in particular since I also teach IB Psychology and we will examine mindfulness and the research in more depth as part of the class. Would you mind if I used that paper in class and distributed it to the students?

I can also use it to explore and examine research methodology, yet another aspect of the IB Psych course. The critical analysis in the paper would fit in perfectly as it’s rare to find a clear appropriate critical evaluation of research within our topics of exploration.

Since I’m considered the “Mindfulness Guy” it will also serve as an example for the students that in science, the researcher is required to question their own results, conclusions, and beliefs. Glad I replied, this has been a little jackpot for me!

Hi, Jim. Of course, the paper is out in the world and is often cited, you are welcome to use it for your class. As someone who is also a science-minded skeptic, any encouragement of appropriate critical thinking skills and better application of the scientific method would be beneficial to the discipline of mindfulness research.

You may also want to check out the work of Dr. Linda Elder around critical thinking, that may be helpful, too.

Thanks again Ted. Here is an article you may find interesting