Reducing Implicit Bias: The Power Of Mindfulness In Challenging Unconscious Biases

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The human brain can make unconscious judgments about others within milliseconds of encountering them. According to the National Institutes of Health, our first impressions are often based on implicit biases, ingrained beliefs, and attitudes that can influence our thoughts and actions without conscious awareness.

These biases can impact our interactions, perpetuating stereotypes and reinforcing social inequalities. However, there's a tool that can help us challenge and reduce these unconscious biases. 

Mindfulness can allow us to become aware of our mental processes without judgment. By observing our thoughts and feelings, we can gain insight and learn to recognize and challenge our biases.

In this article, we will examine the significant potential of mindfulness in addressing implicit bias and fostering a more inclusive society. We'll also discuss how the subconscious works and how implicit biases can affect our decisions.

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Learn to challenge your implicit biases with mindfulness

Understanding implicit bias

Implicit biases are deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs that shape our perceptions and behaviors without conscious awareness. They operate on an automatic level, influencing our judgments and interactions, often in ways that contradict our explicit attitudes.

These biases are typically formed through our socialization, experiences, and exposure to cultural messages, which can lead to the development of implicit social cognition. Harvard social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji describe implicit social cognition as the cognitive processes that occur outside our conscious awareness due to the automatic categorization from social psychological constructs.

An implicit attitude may be subconsciously triggered by race, gender, age, sexuality, physical ability, religion, or other social identities. These unconscious beliefs can cause us to act in ways that don't mesh with our stated values or beliefs.

For example, we may actively believe gender shouldn't be a factor in decision-making but unconsciously behave in ways that favor certain genders over others without realizing it. As a result, implicit biases can manifest in various ways and may lead to discriminatory behaviors.

People may be more likely to attribute positive traits to members of their group and negative qualities to people outside of it. Implicit biases can influence our judgments and behaviors in various domains, such as education, healthcare, criminal justice, etc.

A study from 2023 reveals how teachers' implicit biases can affect their perceptions of students' abilities, leading to differential treatment and lower expectations for certain groups. When a person's performance is perceived as below average or undesirable, they may be more likely to experience the Pygmalion effect — when people's expectations of them shape their behavior and performance. These biases can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, shaping the trajectories of individuals based on their race or other social markers. 

Implicit biases often operate outside our control. We may genuinely believe in equality and fairness, yet our implicit biases can lead us to unknowingly engage in discriminatory behaviors or hold prejudiced attitudes. This discrepancy between our explicit attitudes and implicit biases may underscore the need for increased awareness and intervention strategies to reduce harmful bias.

So, how do we go about challenging implicit biases?

Mindfulness for challenging implicit biases

Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Mindful practices can cultivate heightened awareness, allowing us to observe our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations with curiosity and acceptance. Through mindfulness, we can sometimes better understand our internal experiences, including biases and preconceived notions.

Self-awareness can help us become more attuned to the subtle messages we receive from our social environment and gain insight into why certain thoughts or judgments arise. This awareness may allow us to pause, reflect, and consciously choose how to respond.

Research has consistently demonstrated the positive relationship between mindfulness and self-awareness. Mindfulness can act as a protective mechanism against the automatic influence of implicit biases, allowing us to interrupt biased thinking patterns and choose alternative, unbiased responses.

Moreover, mindfulness can promote cognitive flexibility, which can help reduce implicit bias. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift perspectives, adapt to new information, and consider alternative viewpoints. By cultivating a non-judgmental and open mindset through mindfulness, we can become more receptive to diverse perspectives, challenging the rigidity of our implicit biases.

By developing a decreased reliance on stereotypes, we can see people more accurately and make decisions based on a wider range of information. Mindfulness can help us become aware of our implicit biases to create space for reflection, allowing us to challenge them meaningfully.

Mindfulness-based interventions for reducing implicit bias

Mindfulness-based interventions can offer structured approaches to incorporating mindfulness into our lives, facilitating the reduction of implicit bias. These interventions typically involve guided meditations, breathing exercises, and reflective practices that can improve emotional awareness and self-regulation.

Mindfulness-based interventions can also cultivate a greater understanding of how social and cultural dynamics affect our behavior. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures the strength of associations between different concepts, such as race or gender, and evaluations (positive or negative). The IAT can help people understand the implicit biases that exist within themselves and society as a whole. 

Another effective mindfulness-based intervention is Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM). LKM often involves directing well-wishes and compassion towards oneself and others. By achieving a state of unconditional kindness, we can open ourselves to a more just and equitable mindset, which may allow us to interrupt the automaticity of bias.

While mindfulness-based interventions may provide structured approaches to reducing implicit bias, we can also incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives through individual practice. Practical applications of mindfulness may include the following:

  • Mindful observation: Engaging in mindful observation of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations can help you notice any biases or stereotypes that arise and question their validity.
  • Non-judgmental curiosity: Cultivating a non-judgmental and curious attitude towards others can help us approach them open-mindedly, which can allow us to gain new perspectives and challenge our biases.
  • Self-compassion: Developing self-compassion can help you recognize and correct your bias-related behaviors, as well as forgive yourself for biases you may be unaware of.
  • Reflective practices: Setting aside time for engaging in self-reflection, journaling, or engaging in mindfulness exercises can create space for you to understand and challenge your internal biases.
  • Empathic listening: Active and empathic listening can help us connect with others and build meaningful relationships, allowing us to gain insight into their perspectives.
  • Mindful media consumption: Being mindful about our media consumption can help us become aware of any unconscious biases that are embedded in the content we consume.

Remember, incorporating mindfulness into everyday life is often a continuous practice. It typically requires patience and a commitment to self-growth. As we become more aware of our implicit biases and actively work to challenge them, we may develop more positive and equitable relationships with ourselves and others.

Challenges and limitations of mindfulness in reducing implicit bias

While mindfulness can offer tremendous potential in reducing implicit bias, it can have limitations and potential challenges.

Systemic implicit bias may not be eradicated by mindfulness alone. While mindful practices can significantly contribute to individual awareness and change, addressing broader structural and societal factors can create a lasting impact. Therefore, mindfulness may be viewed as a complementary tool within a larger framework of social and structural changes.

Sustained practice usually yields more significant results, allowing you to fully reap the benefits of mindfulness. As a skill that requires consistent effort and dedication, mindfulness can be hard to maintain in the long run. While engaging in occasional mindfulness exercises may provide temporary relief, developing long-term transformation often requires regular practice and integration into daily life.

Individual awareness also does not guarantee immediate behavior change. Even with increased awareness of our implicit biases, breaking ingrained behavior patterns can be challenging. Real change often takes ongoing effort, self-reflection, and a commitment to consciously acting in ways that align with our desired values.

Mindfulness may not serve as a substitute for discernment and action. However, it can be an effective tool for promoting more equitable behavior when partnered with critical thinking and meaningful action.

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Learn to challenge your implicit biases with mindfulness

The role of online therapy

Therapy can open doors for individuals looking to reduce implicit bias. A therapist can provide a framework that may help you manage your implicit biases more efficiently and effectively. Due to its nature, if you feel hesitant to engage in traditional in-person therapy, you might consider online therapy, which can provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore their beliefs and behaviors more easily. With online therapy, you can communicate with a therapist via phone, video calls, or live chat. Additionally, online therapy tends to be more affordable than in-person therapy without insurance. 

Research from 2023 published in the journal Management Decision indicates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may effectively reduce implicit bias. As an online intervention for behavioral change frameworks, this evidence-based technique may help individuals identify and modify biased thoughts, which can reduce stereotypes and promote more inclusive behavior. Also, studies have shown online CBT to be as effective as in-person CBT in addressing several mental health concerns.

Takeaway

Implicit biases are often pervasive and can have detrimental effects on individuals and society as a whole. However, by harnessing the power of mindfulness, we may be able to challenge these biases and foster more positive accurate thoughts and actions. Through mindfulness, we may cultivate self-awareness, challenge rigid thinking patterns, and open ourselves to diverse perspectives through mindfulness.
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