Over the last two months, America has struggled with its identity concerning racial and religious prejudice, highlighted by a national dialogue over the killings of several unarmed ethnic minorities by police officers. Currently, in relation to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the world is looking at how society and the individuals within it bring prejudices into their relationships. Much light has been shed in the last decade on the benefits of Buddhist-derived mindfulness meditation and its application in a wide range of mental and physical health conditions. In a timely fashion, on 24 November 2014 researchers at Central Michigan University released the findings of a study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on preconceived out-group bias.
The paper is a summation of the study, which was conducted by Adam Lueke, a researcher at Central Michigan University’s Department of Psychology, and Bryan Gibson, also from Central Michigan University, and opens with Thich Nhat Hanh’s words: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
It continues with a direct statement of what the researchers perceive to be the definition of mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness meditation focuses the individual on the present and encourages practitioners to view thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally as mental events, rather than as part of the self.” It proceeds to analyze the benefits of the practice as backed by a number of researchers over the last decade. What makes this study novel, though, is that rather than looking at how mindfulness meditation benefits the individual, it considers how it can have a positive effect on society as a whole by reducing preconceived judgments about people from different social and racial groups.
“I was looking for a new research interest two years ago, and happened to stumble upon an article demonstrating that mindfulness actually decreases reliance on previously established problem-solving solutions in contexts in which they would not provide an answer—insight problems,” says Lueke. “It made sense to me to apply these findings to the previously established bias of stereotyping and resulting prejudice to see if mindfulness could reduce these associations as well.”
The study was based on the responses of 72 white males divided into two groups. The first group was given a recording which instructed listeners to “become aware of bodily sensations (heartbeat and breath) and fully accept these sensations and any thoughts without restriction, resistance, or judgment,” while the second group was given a recording about natural history. The researchers noted that in general, white people tend more strongly to associate white than black with the idea of “good.”
The researchers explained that it has already been shown that racial bias is reduced by exposure to Buddhist principles such as love, equanimity, and compassion. In this case, the hypothesis was that by creating space through mindfulness meditation before the occurrence of a judgment itself, judgments and bias are automatically decreased. The study proved this hypothesis to be correct. While in a test to determine racial and age bias before being exposed to the recordings, both groups had an average reaction, the group exposed to guided meditation had a significantly reduced bias after being taken through a 10-minute practice.
The mechanism seems to be that mindfulness meditation reduces the association between past experiences and thought patterns, and impulsive responses in the present moment. The researchers noted that while it is still important to teach acceptance of people of different ethnicities and cultural and religious backgrounds, meditation could well be key in reducing the processes that are the root cause of automatic judgments associated with racial and age bias, thereby helping to diminish prejudice in people who are consciously against more straightforward attempts to reduce their prejudices. They hope to do similar research in the future on bias associated with sexual orientation.