New MIT Study Finds Headspace Has Comparable Impact on In-Person Therapy

A study from researchers at MIT took a dive into the impact of the mindfulness content offered through the app of the startup Headspace, now part of Headspace Health.

In short, the app showed meaningful impacts on stress, depression and anxiety when compared with traditional therapy, validation of claims of efficacy from many advocates of digital mental health apps.

The study looked at the Headspace app in the context of applied behavioral economics and, in this instance, argued that people make suboptimal decisions when influenced by “irrelevant emotional states and worries.”


While the study authors — Advik Shreekumar and Pierre-Luc Vautrey — state that there are limitations on the findings given the episodic nature of their experiments, they argue that there are benefits to wider access to mindfulness apps, especially considering the cost of therapy.

“Our results demonstrate the potential of inexpensive mindfulness meditation apps to improve mental health, work performance, and consistent decision-making,” the study reads. “Even though the app we evaluate is vastly less expensive than in-person psychotherapy, it leads to comparable short-run improvements in mental health.”

The four-week experiment included the participation of 2,384 adults from the U.S. who were offered free access to a Headspace which costs $13 per month.


The first main finding of the study was that just giving access to the app without incentives saw meaningful improvements to depression, anxiety, and stress levels after two weeks. Even those with mild symptoms compared to a study baseline saw large improvements. Study participants that were incentivized to use Headspace only saw slightly higher rates of use but the positive impacts weren’t durable and were undetectable after four weeks.

App usage fell off after the two-week mark. During that time, about half of the participants used the app at least once every three days. But between the fourth and eighth weeks, usage dipped to 9.5% using the app once every three days. Incentives didn’t help with long-term usage.

People who had access to the app performed slightly better on an incentivized proofreading task, which the study argues was comparable to similar functions in professional settings. Participants also did not appear to see their proofreading work decline even after being faced with descriptions of stressful memories.

Access and use of Headspace also appeared to mitigate the interference of emotions with decision making.

“An important cost of worries and emotions lies in their documented tendencies to make decision-making inconsistent,” the study reads.

In an experiment, participants were asked to do tasks that brought up stressful thoughts and then asked to make a series of incentivized decisions. The control group was significantly impacted with greater risk aversion while the group that had access to Headspace mitigated the impact of the stressful portion of the experiment.

Despite the positive impacts, the study revealed that there are short-lived adverse effects with decision-making and productivity when a person uses a meditation technique immediately before a task.

“These findings may also caution organizations against encouraging meditation sessions immediately before important decision-making events or in the middle of a stressful workday,” the study states.

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