From state to trait mindfulness

By | June 26, 2015
Mindfulness Questionnaire

A recently published study suggests that increasing the ability to be mindful in daily life through mindfulness practice depends on how mindful participants experience to be during their practice.

A neat study carried out at the University of North Carolina investigated a hypothesis that is part and parcel of mindfulness-based interventions:

When people engage in a mindfulness-based training programme it is assumed that their immediate experience of being mindful – so-called state mindfulness – increases. Furthermore, it is assumed that the results of such training translate into something more lasting, of generally being more mindful in their lives – often referred to as dispositional or trait mindfulness.

In this study participants in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme were asked to complete questionnaires that assess state mindfulness  (the Toronto Mindfulness Scale) and trait mindfulness (the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). Whereas the trait mindfulness questionnaire was completed before and after participation in the programme, the state mindfulness questionnaire was completed once per week, after participants engaged in a 10-minute mindfulness practice on their own (at home). In the latter questionnaire participants were asked to rate their mindfulness during that 10-minute practice.

The researchers observed large variations in the levels of self-reported state mindfulness during meditation. Employing combined latent growth and path model statistics (don’t worry if you don’t know what this is) they furthermore concluded that individual trajectories of state mindfulness predicted the changes in trait mindfulness resulting from the MBSR programme: participants with higher increase in state mindfulness during their meditation practice were found to also show the largest increase in trait mindfulness from before to after the MBSR programme.

This study appears to confirm the assumption that practicing state mindfulness leads to higher trait mindfulness. It also indicates that not every individual appears to benefit in the same way from MBSR – when there was little change in state mindfulness also trait mindfulness did not improve much.

Some caution is, however, required when considering the results. Most importantly, the conclusions are based on self-report questionnaire data. They are thus limited due to the inherent limitations of this approach and the particular problems of using questionnaires when investigating mindfulness. While it is generally difficult to quantify internal mental states – as is the aim of using such questionnaires – this is even more so the case when considering mindfulness:

It is obvious that a certain degree of awareness of one’s own mental states is required to answer questions about one’s own mental states. However, as mindfulness is inherently intertwined with awareness of one’s own mental states, when probing mindfulness, we are asking participants to apply this ‘inner’ awareness to their own awareness of internal states – being mindful of their own mindfulness, a circular, self-referential process. One of the problems here is that as we develop our mindfulness we may start noticing how mindless we are. While becoming more mindful of this, our questionnaire responses may indicate a reduction in mindfulness! In more general terms engaging in mindfulness practice may lead to a qualitative shift, with the effect that the same questions of a questionnaire may be answered in a different way. With other words a mindfulness questionnaire may measure something else each time it is applied in such a mindfulness intervention study.

As the authors of the study point out themselves, tis is only a first step, which encouragingly highlights the importance of individual trajectories in the process of developing mindfulness.

Kiken, L. G., Garland, E. L., Bluth, K., Palsson, O. S., & Gaylord, S. A. (2015). From a state to a trait: Trajectories of state mindfulness in meditation during intervention predict changes in trait mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 81, 41-46. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.12.044

© 2015, Peter Malinowski. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “From state to trait mindfulness

  1. Fi Rose

    Hi Peter, I’m currently carrying out a systematic review of mindfulness research in relation to emotional intelligence, I’m excited to find this website, it looks like another valuable resource for my personal journey with mindfulness!
    I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between trait and dispositional mindfulness, and after some searching found that ‘trait’ mindfulness refers to your inherent mindfulness, that which you are born with, whereas ‘dispositional’ mindfulness refers to mindfulness that you learn and build yourself (I guess through practice)!
    I was confused that in your article above you mention trait and dispositional mindfulness being the same thing, can you explain this to me please? Thanks for your time.

    1. Peter Malinowski Post author

      trait mindfulness vs dispositional mindfulness:
      My engagement with the mindfulness literature (and practice) so far suggests that trait and dispositional mindfulness are usually not clearly distinguished. I am sure that making the distinction in the way you cite: “‘trait’ mindfulness refers to your inherent mindfulness, that which you are born with, whereas ‘dispositional’ mindfulness refers to mindfulness that you learn and build yourself” is possible – but I’m not aware that all authors will treat the terms in this way. This would be new to me. In any case, I would be curious to know what the source is. Where did you find it differentiated in this way?
      Certainly, so far I used both terms interchangeably. I did not differentiate between the two. But I am happy to be learn and change – I just need to be convinced that it is meaningful to do so.
      I would say that, so far, it is not clear-cut that the two types of mindfulness you refer to can be distinguished. Is it really the case that we are “born with a certain level of mindfulness”? Is it really true that mindfulness can be learned and built and that these two would then constitute two different “things” (processes, skills, …)?
      Do we really build mindfulness or does meditation help us to chip away some of the mental habits that prevent the expression of mindfulness that has been “lurking in the back of our mind” all the time? Who knows?!

      Also, psychologogical science slowly moves away from the idea that traits (in particular personalilty traits) are fixed. The understanding grows that they can change and that they can be changed.

      Not to mention the issue of measurement. If we would distinguish trait vs dispositional mindfulness, do we have different assessment tools. are there some mindfulness questionnaires for traits and others for dispositions? As far as i know, there are not.

      With other words, we know too little to make such distinctions confidently. We may, however, decide to use different terms in a more conventional way – without necessarily implying that two different types of mindfulness processes or skills or … can be found.


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