Bioethics Blogs

Mindfulness meditation and implicit bias

A recent study purports to demonstrate that 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. Implicit biases can be revealed using implicit association tests (IATs), which often measure the degree to which a participant associates particular stimuli (e.g. white or black faces) with negative and positive words by recording the speed and accuracy with which words are categorized when presented alongside ‘congruous’ or ‘incongruous’ stimuli. For example, white people are better at categorizing positive words when they presented alongside white, rather than black faces and better at categorizing negative words when they are presented alongside black, rather than white faces. Crucially, these implicit biases often do not correspond to participants’ explicit, reported attitudes to racial or other demographic minorities: even the most fervent (white, young) egalitarian can display implicit bias against black or elderly faces.

In their study, Lueke and Gibson sought to investigate whether mindfulness meditation could reduce implicit associations. Mindfulness, according to them, ‘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. This allows the individual to understand and reflect on these events as transient moments that are separate from the self, which inhibits the natural tendency toward reaction and automatic evaluation.’ In particular, Lueke and Gibson wanted to isolate the effect of mindfulness on ‘automatic activation’ – ‘the likelihood that an association or evaluation is automatically activated when a stimulus object is encountered’ as distinct from its effect on ‘overcoming bias’ – ‘the likelihood that an initially activated association can be overcome and replaced by a correct response’ – amongst other parameters.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.