Psychometric data and The Power of Now


As a developer of psychometric tools, I have a unique opportunity to view things from the perspective of psychometric data. I work with anonymized responses to questionnaire items from thousands of people from all over the world. The data enables me to gain insights into topics such as gender and cultural differences, the structure of personality, the drivers of employee engagement. And now even some claims put forward by Eckhart Tolle in his famous book.

A word-of-mouth phenomenon since its first publication in 1997, the book “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle became a New York Times bestseller, it has been translated into 33 languages, and it became wildly popular among coaches and trainers. Some critics called it "spiritual mumbo jumbo" or "a sort of New Age re-working of Zen", but the influence of the teaching described in the book is ever growing. Among others, Oprah Winfrey has fully endorsed it, saying “It’s one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read.” In the corporate world, “Presence training” and “Mindfulness meditation” became popular learning and development topics.

The main idea of the book is “inner stillness”: an individual should be aware of their "present moment" instead of losing themselves in excessive thinking, in worry and anxiety about the past or future, what Tolle calls “mental noise”. Tolle contrasts “productive thinking” which leads to action to solve an actual problem to “compulsive thinking”, revolving thoughts in the head about problems that may or may not happen in the future, or issues of the past. Tolle advocates breathing exercises, body-scan meditation, observing the beauty of nature to feel joy and anchor ourselves stronger in the Now, instead of compulsive, unproductive thinking that only creates anxiety.

Is there evidence that it works? Eckhart Tolle would probably say: “Why don’t you try it yourself right now, instead of searching for evidence?” But surprisingly, there is an impressive and ever-growing body of scientific evidence: the positive effects of “mindfulness-based meditation” have been proven by many rigorous studies (there are links to some at the bottom of the page).

My work provides evidence from a different angle. If Tolle is right, and the normal human state is characterized by excessive thinking and anxiety, we should be able to pick that up in psychometric data.

I am the lead developer of Trait-Map, which is a personality questionnaire that measures trait composition of individuals. Traits are the building blocks of personality, are habitual patterns in behavior, thought, and emotion that are relatively stable over time, relatively consistent over situations, and influence behavior. Trait-Map includes 25 fundamental traits, and it measures which of those traits are “dominant” and “weak” in an individual, therefore influencing most their behavior. The 25 traits include Emotional Control, Calmness (opposite of Anxiety), Optimism, Confidence, Assertiveness, Altruism, Cooperation, Competitiveness, Drive, Dutifulness, Deliberation, Creativity, and so on. If Tolle is right, we should see a low average score on Calmness (indicating high anxiety levels) and high mean on Deliberation (indicating excessive thinking).

And this is what we see indeed when we look at the results of a large number of respondents: Calmness is one of the lowest scoring traits of all, and Deliberation is one of the top scoring traits. This trend is especially remarkable in the Chinese dataset. As a developer, I tried to create scales that show a normal distribution with the mean around half of the measuring range. I replaced problematic questionnaire items with more promising ones, but Calmness is still low and Deliberation is still high against all my efforts. Now I realize that this is not the problem of the instrument, but more likely the actual situation of the participants.

I’d like to close with a dramatic story that has something to do with the following part of The Power of Now, quotation: “(ordinary unconsciousness) is a state not of acute pain or unhappiness but of an almost continuous low level of unease, discontent, boredom, or nervousness - a kind of background static. You may not realize this because it is so much a part of "normal" living, just as you are not aware of a continuous low background noise, such as the hum of an air conditioner, until it stops. When it suddenly does stop, there is a sense of relief….
In ordinary unconsciousness, habitual resistance to or denial of what is (the Now) creates the unease and discontent that most people accept as normal living. When this resistance becomes intensified through some challenge or threat to the ego, it brings up intense negativity such as anger, acute fear, aggression, depression, and so on. Deep unconsciousness often means that the pain-body has been triggered and that you have become identified with it. Physical violence would be impossible without deep unconsciousness.”

I was discussing “Ordinary unconsciousness” and “Deep unconsciousness” with my wife on the subway. It was the 30th of March, 10 am, a beautiful Saturday morning. We had an amazing walk near our home, and then we took the subway to downtown. Just when I talked about the relationship between physical violence and deep unconsciousness, we heard the voice of a woman screaming loudly: “Nein,… nein..” then a man was yelling something, and then the woman screamed again. Such things happen in Berlin. The subway was standing at a station, and the doors were open. And they remained open. We were at the station Rehberge, and the subway didn’t go on for some reason. The screaming continued, it became terrible, screaming the words “Nein” and “Polizei” in agony. We got out of the subway to see what was happening. The screaming stopped. Many people were on the platform, looking towards the back of the subway. The driver stepped out and was running back there. A passenger walked towards the front and told us a man stabbed a woman with a knife in the stomach. Then policemen came, and the ambulance arrived, and we all had to leave the station. I was deeply moved by this event and the intriguing timing. I take it as my call to fight the root cause of violence: unconsciousness. I am not sure what exactly I want to do about it… but now I am going for a walk to practice some mindfulness!

Written by: Gabor Nagy

Studies about the effectiveness of mindfullness-based meditation:

Standardised Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Healthcare: An Overview of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses of RCTs

Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection: a randomized controlled trial

Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for prehypertension

Mindfulness in the Maintenance of Cognitive Capacities in Alzheimer's Disease: A Randomized Clinical Trial