By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“All biases, even the most deeply sub-conscious ones, periodically toss up a clue to their presence in the form of a thought. It is our job to observe that thought and examine it to see what it tells us about our hidden beliefs. This means we need to watch what we think.” – Sondra Thiederman
Whether we admit it or not we all have prejudices. We all have biases. This is a normal human experience that appears to have been built into us through evolution. It is thought to have evolved to promote cohesion and loyalty to the individual’s group and suspicion of members of other groups. In primitive times this would tend to help the group function for the benefit and defense of the included individuals helping to insure survival. But in modern times it no longer functions adaptively and instead promotes unnecessary suspicion and hatred. For the modern human living in a diverse society, overcoming prejudice and bias, is adaptive and would lead to a more cohesive and functional society.
There are suggestions that mindfulness may help to counteract bias and prejudice and can help the individual overcome the effects of prejudice. In today’s Research News article “Mindful attention reduces linguistic intergroup bias.” See:
Tincher and colleagues examine the effects of mindfulness on implicit biases in college students. It is difficult, however, to directly measure these prejudices and biases as the modern societal politeness and political correctness tends to moderate any overt statements of prejudice. So, Tincher and colleagues employed an indirect method to assess prejudice and biases. They took advantage of the fact that they are expressed in our language and thought and result in stereotypes.
Prejudice and biases can be seen in subtle linguistic expressions. If we observe a member of a groups acting in a stereotypical manner, according to our prejudiced expectations of the behavior of that group member, then people tend to characterize it with abstract, conceptual, descriptions. For example, if we view a picture depicting an enemy hitting another person we might characterize the behavior as aggressive (abstract). On the other hand, when the behavior is contrary to our view of the group, then people tend to characterize it with concrete descriptors. For example, if we view a picture depicting an enemy helping another person get up after falling we might characterize the behavior as pulling someone up off the ground (concrete). But, when characterizing the behavior of members of our group, with positive behaviors are described abstractly and conceptually and negative behaviors concretely. For example, if we view a picture depicting a friend helping another person get up after falling we might characterize the behavior considerate (abstract) while if we view a picture depicting a friend hitting another person we might characterize the behavior as hitting someone (concrete).
Tincher and colleagues had college students view similar pictures and describe the behavior. They then provided a mindfulness induction instruction (observe their internal reactions and thoughts) or an immersion instruction (picture yourself in the situation, live the events). They found that the immersion group acted in a biased manner describing friend positive or enemy negative behaviors more abstractly while they described friend negative or enemy positive behaviors more concretely. On the other hand, the mindfulness instruction group had much more muted responses, with much smaller effects. They demonstrated less biased and prejudiced responses.
These results suggest that mindfulness reduces these linguistic responses that are indicative of implicit biases toward friends and enemies. This is a very indirect method of assessing biases but given that it’s socially frowned upon to overtly express bias, indirect methods are the only way to get at the true feelings and behaviors. As such, the results suggest that we have these implicit prejudices and that mindfulness can reduce them. The societal implications are clear that our unwanted biases and prejudices can be reduced with mindfulness.
So, reduce intergroup bias with mindfulness.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
“mindfulness meditation techniques can reduce implicit biases. Affecting all manner of interpersonal interactions, implicit biases are unconscious attitudes or associations that influence our understanding, behavior and decisions. . . . . mindfulness serves to calm and compose the practitioner, such that emotions – and hence positive and negtive emotional responses – are subdued. Subdued emotions perhaps then lead to a more neutral processing of stimuli.“ – Hannah Maslen
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Tincher MM, Lebois LA, Barsalou LW. Mindful attention reduces linguistic intergroup bias. Mindfulness (N Y). 2016 Apr;7(2):349-360. Epub 2015 Oct 15.
PMID: 27200110. Doi: 10.1007/s12671-015-0450-3
A brief mindfulness intervention diminished bias in favor of one’s in-group and against one’s out-group. In the linguistic intergroup bias (LIB), individuals expect in-group members to behave positively and out-group members to behave negatively. Consequently, individuals choose abstract language beset with character inferences to describe these expected behaviors, and in contrast, choose concrete, objective language to describe unexpected behaviors. Eighty-four participants received either mindful attention instructions (observe their thoughts as fleeting mental states) or immersion instructions (become absorbed in the vivid details of thoughts). After instruction, participants viewed visual depictions of an imagined in-group or out-group member’s positive or negative behavior, selecting the best linguistic description from a set of four descriptions that varied in abstractness. Immersion groups demonstrated a robust LIB. Mindful attention groups, however, exhibited a markedly tempered LIB, suggesting that even a brief mindfulness related instruction can implicitly reduce the propensity to perpetuate stereotypical thinking through language. These results contribute to understanding the mechanisms that facilitate unprejudiced thinking.