Most people’s biases are automatic; without thinking, we make biased negative associations about certain categories of people based on previously established associations. Focusing on race and age bias, a new research study shows that mindfulness meditation decreases this type of implicit bias by weakening our automatically activated associations.
Even the most well-intentioned people can be swayed by almost subconscious, automatic biases against certain categories of people — what scientists call “implicit out-group bias.” These biases emerge from engrained negative and positive associations that lurk in our minds.
A team of researchers from Central Michigan University explored whether mindfulness meditation could help reduce our automatic biases. Mindfulness meditation focuses people on the here and now, and enables them to rely less on memory and the past. The researchers believed that through mindfulness meditation, people could break away from the automatic associations in their memory and instead choose their actions and decisions based on thoughtful, unbiased reflection.
The Central Michigan research focused on two types of automatic biases: against black people, and against older people.
The researchers divided the participants in the study — 72 white college students from a large midwestern university — into two groups. One group listened to a mindfulness recording that asked listeners to become aware of their bodily sensations such as heartbeat and breath, and to fully accept these sensations and any thoughts that they might be having without any kind of resistance, restriction or judgment. The other group listened to a control recording that discussed natural history.
Both groups were then given race and age implicit association tests (IATs). These tests, which ask participants to quickly link positive and negative words with names or photos, are designed to measure automatic biases. The IAT scores revealed that participants who had listened to the mindfulness recording showed less implicit racial bias and even less implicit age bias than the participants who had listened to the control recording.
No tests are perfect, however. For example, what if participants were biased but knew which ‘correct’ answers to give to appear less biased? Further analyses by the researchers discounted such controlled responses. These further analyses showed that the mindfulness meditation responses were not influenced by ‘discriminability’ (the ability of test participants to deduce which is the ‘correct’ response of non-bias people), nor ‘overcoming bias’ (the ability of participants to have an automatic biased reaction, but then consciously overcome that bias and give a non-biased answer) nor guessing the non-biased answers.
In short, mindfulness meditation reduced implicit race and age bias specifically because it disarmed automatic biased associations, not because the mindfulness participants knew which answers to give to appear less biased.
Even people who have no intention of being biased will be swayed by biased automatic associations. In the business context, this automatic out-group bias can lead to detrimental practices and decisions, including a lack of trust in relationships, consistently negative evaluations of interactions, and even discriminatory hiring practices.
Business leaders and organizations who want to eradicate such behaviours and attitudes have a challenge. The reason: this type of out-group bias is implicit. Overt negative attitudes toward categories of people are usually easily identified, and can be aggressively addressed. Implicit biases, however, are more insidious and thus more dangerous.
Rooting out such insidious bias requires vigilance and honesty. As noted above, even people who want to be unbiased can have biased reactions. Executives and business leaders must look beyond the outside personalities of their people, and examine results.
For example, a manager may not overtly display sexist attitudes but may almost subconsciously believe that men are more capable than women. A company would have more success in identifying that manager’s implicit bias by examining his results (i.e. how many women he has promoted) rather than searching for sexist behaviour.
This type of manager would be a good candidate for the mindfulness meditation recommended in this study. Before making his next promotion decision, the manager should be encourage to take 10 or 15 minutes to meditate… and then choose the best person for the open job.
Any executive concerned about his or her own biases should engage in the same exercise. As this study demonstrates, it takes very little time to disarm the deep-seated biases of which we are not even aware.
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