Can mindfulness tackle unconscious bias?

If you are familiar with the benefits of mindfulness then you will know that at its core is the practice of over-riding our autopilot function so that we can respond more wisely to the problems life throws up, large and small.    Paying attention to our experience, staying with it long enough to develop greater clarity, creates space for choosing our responses.

If that works,  and it does, then might we apply mindfulness to other kinds of autopilot such as the unconscious biases we harbour?   Researchers Adam Lueke and Bryan Gibson set out to test just that and the results, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal,  are fascinating.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review takes up the story:

“Lueke and Gibson explain that a group who listened to a 10-minute mindfulness exercise exhibited less bias on the race and age implicit association tests (IATs) than those who didn’t—without even focusing on the biases themselves.

The 72 participants were white college students who didn’t know what was being studied beforehand. The test group listened to a recording that made them aware of their heart rate and breathing. It told them to accept these sensations and thoughts “without restriction, resistance, or judgment.” The control group listened to a 10-minute recording about history. Then both groups completed the race and age IATs, which captured response times in pairing positive or negative words with black or white faces and then with old or young faces.

The mindful group showed less implicit racial and age bias than did the control group, and this was, in part, due to a reduction in the automatic activation of negative associations (i.e., black-bad, old-bad). This confirmed older research that mindfulness makes one less reliant on previously established associations. But the researchers were surprised to also find that the mindful group was less able to see differences between the faces than the control group, which seems to suggest that when you’re less likely to automatically associate black and old with “bad,” race and age are also less detectable.

The ability to curb implicit bias and weaken negative associations by simply being more mindful could help prevent all kinds of negative effects. Previous research has shown how implicit out-group bias can make someone more likely to shoot at a black suspect in a simulation or become more aggressive in a video game.

Implicit attitudes even predict some negative behaviors in the workplace better than explicit attitudes. For example, they are more predictive of discriminatory hiring decisions, lack of trust in out-group members, and hostile body language toward stereotyped out-group members. As Lueke explained, “People high in implicit bias will tend to maintain distance, not make as much eye contact, fidget, remain terse in their responses, and generally give non-verbal cues that are indicative of discomfort.” And this happens even if they consciously want to communicate in a non-biased way.

So how do you become more mindful? As Lueke said, “We often have other things on our mind regardless of whether we are at work or not; our to do lists, that date we went on the night before, mulling over that crazy episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ we saw, wondering what we are going to have for dinner tonight.” Silencing and focusing these thoughts is a practice. But even if you’re busy, there are really basic steps you can take—anywhere, anytime—to make you more aware of the present.

Past experiences have a way of influencing our decisions and immediate reactions in ways we don’t fully understand and may not even realize. It’s important to acknowledge this and find ways of making ourselves less reliant on them.”

The full HBR article, including a link to the full study is here.

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2 Responses to Can mindfulness tackle unconscious bias?

  1. helenfulton101 says:

    This article is a great read. I’m looking into unconscious bias at the moment for work, and I know this article isn’t very recent, but the results could still apply today.

    Do you know if there has been a follow up to this blog with a more recent study?

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