Experience may blind us from recognizing obvious solutions to problems. Research shows that physicians and health care professionals are likely to overlook the correct diagnosis in cases which do not match their experience . Similar findings have been reported concerning difficulties in reframing clinical situations as experienced by healthcare professionals , , and difficulties of managers and decision makers in replacing existing procedures with new, improved and simpler ones . This “blinding” to novel solutions may be considered a form of cognitive rigidity, which has commonly been defined as a resistance to change in beliefs, attitudes or personal habits , or the tendency to develop and perseverate in the use of mental or behavioral sets .
Such cognitive rigidity may play a key role in psychopathlogy (for reviews see , , see also ). It has been closely linked to the inability of suicidal individuals to consider alternatives that may be accessible to another person , , as well as to rumination, a major risk factor of depression . Similar forms of cognitive rigidity were also indicated in obsessions , , alcohol dependence , eating disorders , and Attention Deficit Disorder –. In this paper, we propose that mindfulness meditation may provide a means of decreasing the aforementioned type of cognitive rigidity.
Two experiments examined the relation between mindfulness practice and cognitive rigidity by using a variation of the Einstellung water jar task. Participants were required to use three hypothetical jars to obtain a specific amount of water. Initial problems were solvable by the same complex formula, but in later problems (“critical” or “trap” problems) solving was possible by an additional much simpler formula. A rigidity score was compiled through perseverance of the complex formula. In Experiment 1, experienced mindfulness meditators received significantly lower rigidity scores than non-meditators who had registered for their first meditation retreat. Similar results were obtained in randomized controlled Experiment 2 comparing non-meditators who underwent an eight meeting mindfulness program with a waiting list group. The authors conclude that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be “blinded” by experience. Results are discussed in light of the benefits of mindfulness practice regarding a reduced tendency to overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding due to past experience, both in and out of the clinical setting.