Can Mindfulness Cure Prejudice?

Prejudice is as old as the human race. Even the nippiest jaunt through the history books offers disturbing insight into the seemingly universal human capacity to divide the world: us and them, good and bad, and death to the big bad Other. From the Crusades to the genocide in Darfur to the current political melee, the human capacity for cruelty can seem limitless.

And if the last year – with its police shootings and divisive rhetoric – has shown us anything, it is that prejudice is alive and thriving in the United States.

So what to do? Are we doomed to discriminate? Is a post-prejudice world even possible?

New evidence suggests that it might be. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, mindfulness is at the heart of the findings.

Take the article that Yale University psychologist Yoona Kang and her colleagues published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology two years agoThey ran a study on the effects of loving-kindness meditation on implicit intergroup bias.

Previous research on loving-kindness meditation had already established that the meditation had positive impacts on subjects’ perceptions of their social worlds. In fact, just seven minutes of practice influenced how warmly people felt toward strangers. It even changed their sense of support from their own social network.

Kang and her colleagues wanted to see if that sense of connectedness could be extended into the realm of prejudice. First they administered the Implicit Association Test to 101 non-Black, non-homeless people, in order to assess their implicit biases toward African Americans and the Homeless, two stigmatized groups. As expected, there was a measurable prejudice.

Next, the subjects were split into three groups. The first group attended a weekly, hour-long loving-kindness training for six weeks. In addition, they practiced loving-kindness for twenty minutes per day, five days a week. The second group simply discussed loving-kindness once a week for six weeks. The third group was assigned to a wait-list.

At the end of the six weeks, the researchers again administered the Implicit Association Test. And that’s when things got interesting.

Put simply, the loving-kindness intervention blew the controls out of the water.

Even though the meditators were never asked to consider African Americans or the homeless, their prejudice toward both groups went down. Significantly down.

Taken alone, this study would already be interesting. But new evidence only supports the original findings.

For example, a paper published this year showed (again) that a brief loving-kindness meditation intervention reduces racial bias. Another recent study established that mindfulness meditation reduces both implicit age and race bias. And another showed that meditation can help reduce prejudice toward people with disabilities.

So what does this all mean?

First, it means prejudice can be influenced.

Second, it means that these simple practices are surprisingly potent.

Will mindfulness save the world from prejudice? Not likely. But it may be one small piece of a larger societal puzzle. And that’s a puzzle worth spending some time assembling.

Craig Hase