Mindfulness and Implicit Bias

June 25, 2020 by

By John Schorling

Black Lives Matter.  George Floyd’s tragic murder under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman has again brought the issue of systemic racism to the forefront, not just in the US but around the world.  This event, along with the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmoud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, as well as the racial inequities in the impact of COVID-19, have highlighted the racial injustice, structural inequalities, and systematic biases that Blacks in this country face every day.  The widespread protests that have resulted, including individuals from many different backgrounds, seem to indicate that there now may be greater understanding of how our assumptions and actions may be influenced towards others even when we claim, often with great sincerity, that we are not racist, or not even biased.  Yet there continues to be ample evidence that systematic racial bias is widespread.  Why is this?  Why, even when we have the intention of truly viewing and treating everyone equally, with respect and compassion, is it so hard to do?  And how can mindfulness help us in this pursuit?

Humans are tribal. Link   We have spent most of the past 300,000 years as a species living in small social groups, competing with others for resources.  Our brains have evolved so that we connect with those closest to us, in our families and our close communities, very easily, and create social bonds that promote cooperation.  We find it equally easy to view others outside our social group as different, as not equal, and as potentially dangerous.  Our ancestors who were especially good at this may have had a survival advantage in defending their resources and territory, and thus increased the likelihood that these traits would be transmitted to future generations.

The most obvious manifestation of this is conscious or explicit bias, being aware that we do not like members of a different group, perhaps expressing and acting on this bias openly.  Even when we don’t explicitly believe we are biased, testing for implicit bias (bias that we are not consciously aware of), often demonstrates that we still view those who are different from us negatively, especially if we have been exposed to stereotypes that reinforce these differences.

Implicit bias can also lead to discriminatory behavior.  This occurs because all sensory input enters the brain below the level of conscious awareness, and it is processed there before it occurs to us as a thought.  Several brain regions have been identified as being involved in this process, including the amygdala which is sometimes referred to as the “threat detector” in the brain. The amygdala may be activated, signaling a threat, when we see others who are classified as belonging to a different group.  This impression, which contains the implicit bias of another as threat, then is transmitted to the prefrontal cortex, where thinking occurs.  If we are not paying attention, we will just react based on the automatic subconscious processing which includes this implicit bias.  However, once this impression arrives in the prefrontal cortex where we can become aware of it, we then have the potential to decide whether we believe it or will act on it. Link

This is where mindfulness can be very helpful.  If we are aware that this process is always occurring, we can pause when we notice an emotional reaction to another person or group, and investigate it with curiosity.  Paying attention in this way can help shed light on biases of which we might not otherwise be aware Link.  For example, we might notice a feeling of unease when a person who looks different than us comes up to us to ask a question while we are walking.  Our initial inclination might be to just keep going.  However, if we pause and notice our unease we can ask ourselves what’s behind it.  What are we feeling, and what is the underlying belief about people who look like the person asking us?  Recognizing that a bias has been activated, and acknowledging the associated belief without having to still believe it, how do we want to proceed?

If we begin noticing these reactions, we can become more aware of our biases, and more intentional in how we respond.  We can question our assumptions and choose our actions carefully so that we can act more skillfully and compassionately.  We can look deeply into the conditions that have resulted in these biases.  We can talk about them with others to help shed light on them.  We can make choices about not exposing ourselves to situations and media that reinforce negative stereotypes.  We can seek out opportunities to interact with those who are different than us in positive ways.  And we can seek to better understand the root causes of racism, demanding changes to the many policies and actions that perpetuate these cycles of discrimination and injustice as so many have been all around the world for the past month.  Finally, we can commit to continuing to do all this, for these issues have been ongoing for over 400 years, and will not just disappear now without our sustained attention and effort.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings