By Tash Wilder, PhD | Consultant @ Paradigm
There are many documented benefits of mindfulness. In addition to impacting general health and well-being, mindfulness appears to be a promising tool for decreasing stress and burnout in the workplace (Krasner et al., 2009) and increasing concentration on work tasks (Dane, 2010). The focus of this literature review is to help us understand how mindfulness can impact unconscious bias and social interactions.
There is evidence that increased awareness of current experience, which is a common product of mindfulness practice, can reduce the automatic or habitual functioning that characterize cognitive biases (Burgess, Beach, & Saha, 2016). Furthermore, bringing deliberate attention to automatic cognitions, such as implicit race biases, can in turn impact related explicit social judgments and behaviors (Payne, 2005). Specific mindfulness practices that emphasize developing capacities of kindness and compassion have also been associated with lower levels of implicit bias (Kang, Gray, & Dovidio, 2014) and an increased likelihood to help others (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013).
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is often defined as intentional, non-judgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Practices designed to increase mindfulness, such as meditation, have religious origins; however, in the past few decades they have gained popularity in disparate arenas such as business, sports, and health management for their purported benefits. Mindfulness is used both to reference specific practices (i.e., mindfulness meditation) as well as to identify a state of awareness characterized by non-judgmental recognition of thoughts, feelings, emotions or sensations as each one arises in the moment.
Both state (momentary experience) and trait (dispositional tendency) mindfulness bear similarities to commonly referenced concepts (see Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Dane, 2010). Mindfulness is distinct from the concept of self-awareness; while increasing mindfulness can support greater self-awareness, mindfulness itself does not contain the evaluative/critical aspects nor the focus on the self that typifies self-awareness. Mindfulness is also different from being in a flow state (for more on flow, see Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Being in flow (or “in the zone”) refers to absorption in a challenging and intrinsically satisfying activity. While the present-moment focused attention is a component of both mindfulness and flow, flow requires complete engagement to further the goals of a task, whereas mindfulness involves awareness of what is occurring in the moment (e.g., sensory input such as sounds or smells, thoughts, feelings, etc.) without becoming overly engaged with these stimuli or attached to particular outcomes related to them.
General Outcomes of Mindfulness
Health & Well-being. Recent advances in neuroscience research and a push to understand the physiological correlates of mindfulness have offered a new range of methods to the study of mindfulness (e.g., fMRI to measure brain activity, electrocardiogram to measure vagal tone, blood draws to measure immune antibodies, etc.). Mindfulness practice has been linked with decreases in physiological and psychological symptoms of disease (e.g., depression, chronic pain disorders, cancer, HIV, and anxiety; see review by Baer, 2003). In one study, employees of a biotech company showed more robust immune response after eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training compared to a control group of employees who had not yet taken the training (Davidson et al., 2003). MBSR training (a standardized 8-week program) is also associated with reduced stress (see meta-analysis by Grossman, et al., 2004). Additionally, mindfulness is can lead to increased positive affect and decreased negative affect (see review by Brown et al., 2007). Mindfulness might also provide some alleviation for those who systematically experience discrimination, providing a buffer against depression (Brown-Iannuzzi, Adair, Payne, Richman, & Fredrickson, 2014).
Concentration & Decision-making. As mentioned previously, mindfulness meditation is one type of meditation practice. Mindfulness meditation often employs a focus on a single point of attention, such as the breath as it enters and exits the body, with the intention of developing capacity for attention or concentration. Mindfulness practice appears to serve these aims, even after a relatively short period of time. Three experiments of college students found that those who attended a mindfulness class for 45 minutes, four times a week for two weeks, (rather than spending the same amount of time in a nutrition class) performed better on a GRE test and reported less mind-wandering than students who had been randomly assigned to a nutrition class (Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013). Research on mindfulness suggests an impact on cognitive function more broadly, linking mindfulness to both social (e.g., fairness, prosocial behavior) and non-social (e.g., risk-taking) decision-making through its impact on cognitive control, emotion regulation, and empathy (see review by Sun, Yao, Wei, & Yu, 2015).
MINDFULNESS & BIAS
Mindfulness practice focuses attention on the present moment and pushes individuals to engage with sensations and events as they come up in real time, rather than default to automatic reactions. As such, mindfulness holds promise for impacting habitual, automatic cognitions such as unconscious bias. Indeed, extant literature supports the thesis that meditation training is linked to an increase in mindfulness skills, which in turn are associated with reduced activation of implicit bias and increased awareness of implicit biases when they are activated (see review by Burgess, Beach, & Saha, 2016). The effects of mindfulness appear to occur even after brief mindfulness interventions.
Mindfulness Affects Unconscious Biases
Many experiments have demonstrated the impact of brief mindfulness interventions on automatic associations, with some evidence that mindfulness can influence behaviors that stem from these automatic associations. College students who listened to a 10-minute mindfulness audio recording — which included instructions in non-judgmental awareness of sensations and thoughts — showed less implicit race bias and age bias, measured using the IAT, than a control group (Lueke & Gibson, 2015). A follow-up study by the same researchers found that participants in mindfulness conditions acted more trusting of Black individuals during a game than participants in control conditions who did not listen to a mindfulness audio recording (Lueke & Gibson, 2016).
Our unconscious beliefs about other people or groups are related to how we categorize others as being similar to or different from us. Research on group dynamics has uncovered common biases related to group membership, such as the tendency to characterize the behavior of in-group members (those who are similar to us) as positive and out-group members (those who are different from us) as negative. In one experiment, these automatic characterizations by group membership decreased following a brief mindful training intervention (Tincher, Lebois, & Barsalou, 2016). Additionally, mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing correspondence bias, or the tendency to attribute the behavior of others to dispositional rather than situational factors (Hopthrow et al., 2017).
Using Compassion Meditation to Decrease Social Biases
Mindfulness techniques that emphasize compassion towards others are another route towards mitigating bias. Compassion-based mindfulness training is focused on eliciting feelings of kindness or compassion in the practitioner. One form of this training, loving-kindness meditation (LKM), incorporates intentional phrases which have been shown to increase mindfulness, decrease depression, and increase compassion towards oneself and towards others (see meta-analysis by Galante, Galante, Bekkers, & Gallacher, 2014). There are slight variations in LKM, however the typical technique involves meditators setting heartfelt intentions for well-being and happiness, starting with oneself, and expanding to a loved one, a neutral person or stranger, and finally an enemy. Feeling compassion towards others is likely one avenue for influencing our evaluations of people who are different from us. Research suggests that compassion amplifies our sense of similarity to others, specifically those we perceive as having less social status (Oveis, Horberg, & Keltner, 2010). These results are significant when considering the hierarchies of the corporate workplace; there is evidence that higher status is associated with diminished emotional response to the distress of those in lower status positions (Kleef, Oveis, Lo, Luokogan, & Goetz, 2008). Taken together, these studies suggest that cultivating compassion is one strategy for managers and leaders to increase their sense of connection to their employees.
As mentioned above, compassion-based mindfulness trainings, such as LKM, can impact our social judgments. LKM interventions have been shown to influence how positively one evaluates a stranger (Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2008). LKM practice also affects specific stereotypes, for example reducing unconscious biases about stigmatized groups, such as those held by non-homeless people about homeless people (Parks, Birtel, & Crisp, 2014) and by non-Black people against Black people (Kang, Gray, & Dovidio, 2014). Even brief LKM interventions decrease automatic processing related to race cognitions, effectively reducing unconscious biases about race (Stell & Farsides, 2015).
The effects of compassion-based mindfulness training go beyond beliefs about others, impacting actual behaviors. Participants who listened to audio instructions on compassion cultivation for 30 minutes per day for two weeks were more likely to donate funds to a victim (in a laboratory simulation) than participants who received instructions for two weeks on how to reappraise stressful life events (Weng et al., 2013). Similarly, after eight weeks of LKM training, participants were five times more inclined to offer their seat to a stranger in visible distress than those who had not received LKM training (Condon et al., 2013). Given the focused intention on generating warm feelings towards others, these findings might not be surprising. Interestingly, the researchers found that general mindfulness training was just as effective as LKM on impacting the likelihood of helping someone in distress (Condon et al., 2013). These results underscore the overall benefits of general mindfulness training, and suggest that more research is needed to understand the specific conditions that are necessary for mindfulness training to help mitigate bias and support altruistic behaviors towards others.
APPLYING MINDFULNESS AT WORK
The mindfulness research covered here points to several promising strategies to influence positive workplace outcomes.
The literature presented in this review posits mindfulness — specifically trainings related to increasing mindfulness and compassion — as a promising strategy for impacting individual well-being and social cognitions and behaviors. While a significant body of literature supports the links between mindfulness and the benefits mentioned above, there is also evidence of some detrimental effects of mindfulness. Increasing attention to distressing physical experience, rather than relying on distractions or suppressing the discomfort, may have the effect of heightening symptoms, especially in the case of short term conditions (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). Furthermore, mindfulness practices are contraindicated for certain trauma conditions and dissociation disorders. Meta-analyses of mindfulness have also uncovered gaps in understanding the long-term effects of mindfulness, which are particularly salient given the predominance of brief mindfulness interventions employed in experimental research (see Grossman, et al., 2004). More research is needed to help us understand how to ameliorate these concerns.
While research examining mindfulness in organizational settings is limited, there has been an upswing in attempts to encourage employees to bring mindfulness to work. Between 2002 to 2007 the rates of meditation practice in the US workforce increased from 8% to nearly 10% (Kachan et al., 2017). Mindfulness techniques have been incorporated in employee health offerings, as well as leadership training. For example, Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) aims to help employees boost their emotional intelligence and concentration, and combat stress through mindfulness-based practices (Schaufenbuel, 2015). Other companies (e.g., Intel, Target, and Aetna) have followed suit. In addition to gaining techniques designed to impact employee health and well-being, leaders learn how mindfulness is a form of “mind-training,” supporting their capacity to make better decisions. As mindfulness techniques are more widely adopted in mainstream society (e.g., see Chaykowski, 2017 about the meditation app Headspace), it is timely to explore new ways that mindfulness might be harnessed for improving individual well-being, mitigating unconscious bias and prejudice, and fostering positive social connections.
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