Overpower a racist mind

Mindfulness breaks barriers, prejudice and hateful associations

Mindfulness activities are known to reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure, but could they help people from acting racist?

Dr. Adam Lueke posed that question to a skeptical graduate school advisor while completing his Ph.D. at Central Michigan University. At the time, most mindfulness research focused on the internal benefits for participants, not interactions they have with others.

“There was so little research in this area that there was little evidence to support this hypothesis,” Lueke said.

He went forward with the idea anyway.

The result: Routine mindfulness practices, such as 10 minutes of meditation, reduce implicit bias.

Lueke, now a assistant professor of psychology. at Ball State University, got the idea for the study–Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias­–after reading about research that concluded people practicing mindfulness were less likely to rely on routine or past experience. Instead, they saw each problem as a new puzzle, which made them more creative problem solvers. Lueke saw an immediate connection with those findings and bias.

Bias is holding a particular perspective without considering other angles. The one-sided view can be expressed in favoring a particular ethnicity, religion, sex or social class,

Implicit beliefs and biases–such as racist associations–may run deep, but Lueke found mindfulness can decrease the appearance of prejudice.

To test his hypothesis, Lueke had 72 white college students complete an implicit-association test, during which they sorted positive and negative words with black and white faces, as well as old and young faces.

“If you had a preference for males, you could be quicker to sort males and good things into the same category, rather than males and bad things,” Lueke said.

The IAT is used in the research field to measure prejudice and implicit bias. While whites are unlikely to admit to or may not even realize they hold biases, they often associate black with bad. Young people often associate old with bad, as well.

After the first round of the IAT, participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness recording or a recording about natural history, then completed around round of testing.

The individuals who listened to the mindfulness tape were “more aware of their sensations and thoughts in a nonjudgmental way,” and they showed less implicit bias against blacks and elderly people, the study said.

Routine mindfulness practices, such as 10 minutes of meditation, reduce implicit bias.

Mindfulness works to reduce bias because it removes a person from relying on past associations, similar to the problem-solving example, Lueke said. The practice breaks up routine thinking, allowing people to think differently.

“You can alter your brain’s wiring, essentially, and grow your brain’s connections through mindfulness,” he said.

How long a person remains in a state of open-mindedness after mindfulness practice remains unknown, Lueke said.

“If you practice mindfulness, you’re going to be mindful for a short period of time,” he said, which emphasizes the need for daily practice until mindfulness is normal. “If you’re default setting is mindfulness, you’re less likely to be biased in the future.” Otherwise, a person returns to the unconscious and automatic associations of the past.

Lueke hopes to study the effects of mindfulness practice with longer sessions or more weeks of practice, to see if the benefits are long lasting. He would also like to conduct the same study with older adults.

“It would be really interesting (to study) people who have a very strongly developed sense of self, people who are in their middle age or older,” he said.

“You can alter your brain’s wiring, essentially, and grow your brain’s connections through mindfulness” — Adam Lueke

He is also aware that his research findings are coming at a time of heightened racial tension and awareness by whites. Other researchers plan to duplicate the study. Police departments and social workers have contacted him. People are looking for solutions to racism everywhere, he said.

“It doesn’t have to be something that’s tailor-made to reduce bias,” Lueke said. “We can just practice mindfulness and one of the benefits is reducing bias. … People are going to start looking at it as something that we can really easily and very cheaply and very successfully use to better people’s lives in more ways than one.”


Suggestions from Lueke and others, to get started with mindfulness:


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Wyatt Massey is a human rights journalist and men’s health advocate. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter.