Research has found that meditation may be able to reduce implicit bias on an individual level. For example, studies have found that after meditating, people are less likely to have automatic negative associations — or stereotypes — based on race, age, and social status. Some experts believe that in order to decrease prejudice in society, meditation can be an important starting point for individuals to recognize and reflect on their own biases. This article was reviewed by Erin Woo, MEd, assistant director of mindfulness in education at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. This story is part of Insider’s guide on How to Meditate.
Implicit bias is an unconscious assumption or stereotype that influences our perception of others. Even though you don’t realize it, this can lead you to favor or disfavor a certain person, or group of people.Everyone — even those who feel committed to fairness — has implicit biases, and because these implicit associations are so pervasive, they are difficult to overcome. It’s common to hold implicit biases based on: RaceAgeGender Sexuality Though it may be difficult to recognize, implicit bias has a large impact on who we are and how we see the world, and is proven to contribute to disparate policing practices, lower quality healthcare, and inequity in the workplace. But there are steps one can take to acknowledge, understand, and reduce these biases.
In fact, there is a growing amount of research on the correlation between practicing meditation and undermining implicit bias. Some research has found that meditation may help people become more aware of their own harmful prejudices, and learn how to act with less judgment and more compassion.Here’s what researchers have to say about how and why meditation can be an effective tool to reduce implicit bias and promote compassion on an interpersonal level. Research has found that meditation can reduce implicit bias Adam Lueke, PhD, an experimental psychologist based at Ball State University in Indiana, specializes in how meditation practices can actively reduce stereotyping and discrimination. Specifically, Leuke has analyzed mindfulness meditation’s effects on reducing implicit bias for race and age. In one study, published in Psychology of Consciousness in 2016, Leuke and his team found that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation reduced the automatic activation of negative associations when white participants were exposed to pictures of Black people.
In the study, white participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness meditation audio recording, and then completed implicit association tests (IATs). During an IAT, participants categorize words or images — such as a photo of a Black man or white man — as pleasant or unpleasant. Leuke also designed the study to include measures of trust among the different groups, such as rating how much the participants would trust a Black or white person with their money. “When interacting with pictures of various white and Black people, mindfulness participants treated both groups about the same in terms of how much they trusted members of different racial groups, whereas control participants tended to trust white people a little more than Black people, on average,” Leuke says. Research has also found that loving kindness meditation, a specific type of meditation that promotes feelings of compassion, can help decrease implicit bias.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2013, used the IAT to measure implicit biases against Black people and homeless people. The 101 non-Black, non-homeless participants were split up into groups, with one group practicing loving kindness meditation, and another group talking about the principles of loving kindness without actually practicing it. Overall, the study found that participants enrolled in the six-week loving kindness meditation practice experienced a decrease in their implicit bias towards Black people and homeless people, while the six-week loving kindness discussion group did not experience decreased bias. How meditation affects the brain to reduce biasNeuroscientists believe that implicit bias is a function of how our brains are wired. In particular, bias is thought to stem largely from a part of the brain called the amygdala.That could be because the amygdala prompts the body to react to potential threats, and as a result, triggers behaviors automatically (this is where your “fight or flight” response occurs).
A daily meditation practice trains you to notice your thoughts and become more self-aware. And research shows that this can reduce amygdala reactivity over time. That’s important because it means that you are less susceptible to the immediate reactions and fear response your amygdala generates and therefore less prone to implicit bias.”Mindfulness helps us widen that space between stimulus and response so that we have more freedom over our choices,” Lueke says. “It allows us a more intentional life, rather than a reactive one, which can vastly improve our lives and the lives of those around us.” Moreover, meditation is about treating yourself and others with compassion — and without judgement — says Miguel Farias, PhD, a professor of experimental psychology at Coventry University’s Centre for Peace, Trust, and Social Relations in the UK. “Mindfulness allows you to be non-judgmental, and this allows you to detach yourself from a strong negative pathway of thought, which would lead to decreased prejudice,” says Farias.
If you seriously commit to a meditation practice, you can train your brain to react more compassionately. For example, a study published by the Public Library of Science in 2015 found that mindfulness meditation increased one’s tendency to act kindly towards people with a disability. The study participants did a three-week mindfulness meditation training program in which participants meditated an average of 12 minutes a day. Afterwards, these participants were more likely to give up their seat for a disabled stranger in a crowded room, when compared with the control group that had not meditated. The limits of meditation In the short-term, meditation may help you feel more compassionate and less biased, says Ute Kreplin, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor at Massey University in New Zealand.However, many of these studies do not measure the long-term effects of meditation on reducing bias. They simply measure a change in implicit bias over the course of the study — not in the weeks or months after the participants have stopped meditating.
Kreplin says there’s little evidence to determine whether those feelings developed under these short-term research settings actually carry over into everyday life, and whether it can make an impact to reduce prejudice on a community or institutional level. Furthermore, Kreplin says there’s an inherent bias in the people selected for these types of studies, which could skew the results as they pertain to a general population.”The people chosen for most of these studies were self-selected and were interested in being compassionate towards others,” says Kreplin. “The majority of people you’d want to address and give these practices are the people who don’t want to change or those who need to revise their attitudes towards these larger societal issues in the first place.” The bottom line Meditation is not some quick fix to address the structural inequities that are historically embedded in our society.
But it may be the first step in acknowledging bias and promoting kindness on a personal level so people are less likely to act on bias, and it can help guide people as they explore the bigger picture of racism, sexism, or homophobia. For example, Rhonda Magee, a lawyer specializing in race law and identity-based conflict and a professor at The University of San Francisco, advocates for meditation as a starting point for inner reflection and change. Overall, if you meditate with the intention of being more compassionate and reducing your own bias, a daily practice may help you recognize and interrupt the thought patterns that contribute to prejudice and bias.