Given that mindfulness encourages a focus on the present moment experience, it may minimize the weight of past experiences on present moment interpretations. Leuke et al., based at Central Michigan University, investigated the potential of mindfulness to reduce implicit out-group bias (1). When ideas and memories develop into automatic associations, we refer to them as implicit attitudes. Out-group bias refers to the valence of these attitudes towards out-of-group members. This concept is important in medicine for obvious reasons – as humans we have a tendency to hold automatic negative biases against those outside of our identity group. Finding strategies to ensure that our relationships with people who don’t belong in the same group(s) that we do would strengthen our relationship with the diverse patient population that we have the privilege of serving in Canada. Although challenging, changing implicit biases has been shown to be possible. For example, exposure to positive out-group exemplars can reduce implicit racial attitudes (2,3,4)
Leuke et al. used the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for age and race in order to test whether exposure to mindfulness influences results. 72 college students participated in the study, and they were blinded to it’s true purpose. Participants completed questionnaires before and after listening to a 10-minute mindfulness recording or a control recording. The mindfulness recording instructed individuals to bring their attention to the physical and emotional experience in the present moment. In the control group recording, the same narrator discussed natural history. Both groups were equivalent in terms of pre-session motivation to avoid prejudice and trait mindfulness.
The researchers reported that the impact of hearing the mindfulness recording lead to significantly lower implicit bias scores for both age and race when compared to the control group and suggested that the 10-minute audiotape made participants more aware and less judgemental of their thoughts towards older people, and people of colour.
While appealing at first glance, this article may be an example of methodologically flawed studies investigating mindfulness and contributing to a mindfulness hype that is not supported by solid evidence. One of the major issues with the study is the use of the IAT in a one-off way – some researchers propose that the IAT is a crude, if not unreliable, method of measuring racial bias. Even the original author of the test, Tony Greenwald from the University of Washington, concedes that the test must be done several times and only the aggregate score carries meaning. This study is also limited in scope – although the authors discuss the potential role of mindfulness is reducing implicit bias more generally in the discussion, whether this finding is generalizable to other forms of bias (sexual orientation in- and out-grouping for example) remains to be seen. Additionally, while this effect was observed directly after listening to a mindfulness recording, there is no indication that this reduction in implicit bias would be long lasting and there are many other plausible explanations for the results. For example, given the greater public awareness of mindfulness-based strategies and its proposed impacts, it is impossible to exclude the possibility that individuals recognized they were listening to a mindfulness- based exercise and behaved accordingly.
While the authors are quick to jump to conclusions in the discussion, this study is likely too small and limited in its methodology to make conclusions about the role of mindfulness in reducing implicit bias. This is just one example of researchers overreaching in their interpretation of results in mindfulness-based research. Granted, this study does bring up an interesting and important avenue of research that focuses on the possible benefits of mindfulness that extend beyond the individual, but if we ever want to truly interrogate this question, we will need a higher standard for research methodology.
- Lueke A, Gibson B. Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Social Psychological and Personality Science; 2015;6(3):284–91.
- Dasgupta N, Greenwald AG. On the malleability of automatic attitudes: combating automatic prejudice with images of admired and disliked individuals. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2001 Nov;81(5):800.
- Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2006). Reducing automatically acti-vated racial prejudice through implicit evaluative conditioning.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,32, 421–433. doi:10.1177/0146167205284004
- Rudman LA, Ashmore RD, Gary ML. ” Unlearning” automatic biases: the malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2001 Nov;81(5):856.
This article was written by Zoe O’Neill, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.