One day, a man encounters a disheveled woman on the street, asking for spare change. Immediately, negative stereotypes spring to mind about the poor and unhoused, intertwined with other stereotypes about race or mental illness. The man feels disgust and contempt, and before he realizes it, he is rushing past her without a glance. As he walks away, he experiences a twinge of guilt and shame, as he ordinarily sees himself as a generous and compassionate person.

Most of us have experienced a similar scenario—automatic associations hijack our behavior and leave us feeling uncomfortable and ashamed. People sort others into categories, based on status and roles, race or ethnicity, age, religion, or social class. People then distance themselves from dissimilar others (outgroup) and hold more positive views of similar others (ingroup).  Unchecked, these cultural biases lead to harmful intergroup processes such as marginalization, dehumanization, discrimination, hate crimes, and genocide. In addition, bias targets may internalize negative stereotypes about their group, increasing their risk for negative health, academic, and other important life outcomes.

Strategies to Reduce Intergroup Bias

Research shows that contact with outgroup members is one of the best ways to reduce intergroup bias when the groups have equal status and a shared goal, and the contact involves cooperation and has institutional support. However, most people circulate in homogenous social networks, resulting in fewer opportunities for intergroup interactions. For example, a July 2023 Pew Research poll involving more than 5,000 Americans found that 70% of White people report that all or most of their close friends are also White.

Mindfulness As a Strategy to Mitigate Bias

How can people mitigate bias in a spatially and digitally segregated world?  Recent research suggests that mindfulness disrupts intergroup bias, including bias against others and internalized stigma. Adapted from Buddhist meditation practices, mindfulness involves moment-by-moment awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and surrounding environment, coupled with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment.

We conducted a meta-analysis, examining the previous evidence that mindfulness, as a meditative practice or as a personal trait, predicts decreased bias directed towards others or internalized toward oneself. We also examined whether mindfulness relates to anti-racist or other anti-bias outcomes, such as donating money to the homeless, cultivating relationships with oppressed group members (for example, racial or religious minorities), or acknowledging that racism is a root cause of social inequality.

A total of 70 studies from 62 articles involving 9,231 participants mostly from the U.S., but also across Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as the Middle East (specifically Israel and Palestine) reported findings relevant to our research questions. The studies included students, clinical populations, trainees and professionals in health care, education, and law enforcement. Combining results across studies revealed 3 key findings.

First, mindfulness was strongly associated with improvements in intergroup or antibias outcomes, with big effects on explicit responses such as attitudes, feelings, and observed behaviors and medium effects on implicit attitudes that operate outside of conscious awareness and control.

Second, mindfulness may enhance the well-being of marginalized people by increasing their resilience to negative societal messages about their group.

Third, among intervention studies, effects did not vary by the duration of the intervention or specific target group (e.g., Black Americans, the homeless). However, mindfulness-based interventions had a stronger positive effect on bias in the general population compared to those in the helping professions (e.g., teachers, counselors, medical staff).

In sum, mindfulness can reduce biases and help people find more egalitarian, anti-bias ways of relating to themselves and others.  In practice, it might look something like this:

As the man encounters the disheveled woman, he notices his negative thoughts about the poor and unhoused, involuntary tension in his body, feelings of disgust, and a desire to move away. Adopting an attitude of openness, curiosity, and kindness, he interprets these reactions as ingrained habits of mind that are reinforced by a culture that blames the poor for being poor, and reminds himself that people's contexts (as well as their choices) shape their life outcomes. He acknowledges that he does not know the specific chain of events in this woman's life that brought her to this moment of need.  Reminding himself of his core values of generosity, kindness, and compassion, he pauses and brings his attention to his body, inhibiting the impulse to walk past her outstretched hand. He slows his pace, meets her gaze, and offers her a few bills, affirming their shared humanity. 

For Further Reading

Chang, D.F., Donald, J., Whitney, J., Miao, I.Y., & Sahdra, B. (2023). Does mindfulness improve intergroup bias, internalized bias, and antibias outcomes? A meta-analysis and systematic review of the evidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783.

Doris F. Chang is a clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work. She studies factors associated with ethnic minority mental health and develops culturally-affirming interventions for clinical and educational contexts that integrate mindfulness and other contemplative traditions.