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Universiteit Leiden

How to be more socially mindful

How to be more socially mindful

Imagine that you and a friend get offered cookies. Both of you would like a cookie, but only three are left: two chocolate chip cookies and a peanut butter cookie. You choose first, which one would you choose? Read on to find out if you are socially minded

Social brain
Multiple times a day we have social interactions with people around us: friends, parents, a teacher or a passer-by. We learn from these social interactions and improve each time to be more successful in future social interactions. These interactions are key aspects of human communication and are therefore very important. As a result, parts of the brain are dedicated to social processes and interactions also known as the “social brain”. We use the social brain to predicts outcomes of social interactions, to mirror other’s movements and language or for prejudice. 

Social mindfulness
Recently, a new concept in social psychology has been introduced: social mindfulness. It is based on mindfulness, a meditation technique which focuses on being aware of your surroundings. Instead of thinking about only yourself and your own experiences, social mindfulness concentrates on the experiences and needs of others. In situations where people are dependent on each other social mindfulness can be very important. In this case, social mindfulness means that the other person can exert control over their own outcomes.

Social mindfulness can be measured with the social mindfulness paradigm. In this paradigm people are presented with three objects, cookies for example, of which two are the same and one is slightly different (two chocolate chip and one peanut butter cookie). The person is instructed that they play this “game” with another person and that they can both take a cookie, but this person has to choose first. If you choose the peanut butter cookie it would be scored as socially unmindful. This is because you have left the other person with no choice but the chocolate chip cookie. Practically, by choosing the peanut butter cookie you have also made a choice for the other person.

How socially mindful a person is can be influenced by different instructions. For example, instructions like “you will not get to know what the other will choose” or “be sure to keep your own interest in mind”, would lead to more socially unmindful choices. However, other-oriented instructions like “be sure to keep the other’s person best interest in mind” or “the other will be informed about your choices” lead to more socially mindful choices.

How to be socially mindful?
To be more socially mindful, at least three different kinds of skills are needed: empathy, perspective taking, and theory of mind. Empathy refers to understanding or feeling emotions or other experiences as seen from another person’s perspective. For example, if you see another person crying and it makes you sad as well. With empathy, you have an understanding of another person’s feelings or what they might feel in a certain situation.  Another important skill for social mindfulness is having a theory of mind. At a very young age, (around 4) children develop a theory of mind. This means that they can understand why another person would act in a certain way and can also predict how a person will react to an object or during a situation. The emphasis within in theory of mind lies with beliefs, desires and intentions, instead of feelings. Lastly, perspective taking is needed to ascribe thoughts and actions to another person. By viewing a situation from another point of view it is easier to imagine their thoughts and reasoning.

It is not hard to be socially mindful, but it takes some effort to take another person’s perspective and empathize with them. Also, if another person thinks you are socially mindful they will like you better and trust you more than socially unmindful people. So try your best to think about others when making a choice.

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