By Xander Stell
Although meditation and related practices once were considered too ‘esoteric’ to study scientifically, research on these topics has burgeoned within psychology and neuroscience. This is, in part, because meditation has been linked to a raft of positive outcomes such as greater happiness, increased cognitive flexibility, more effective regulation of emotions and lower disease risk.
These benefits however are normally observed at the level of the individual; the meditator themselves. Much less work has explored how practicing meditation can affect how people think of and behave towards others. This lack is particularly notable given that traditional accounts of meditation often emphasise inter-personal harmony as an important practice goal.
One suggestion is that practicing certain types of meditation may help us widen the circle of what we consider to be ‘us’. That is, instead of being identified with our local groups and roles (e.g. white person, black person, teacher, footballer) meditation training may orient us towards feeling part of a more universal community (e.g. all humans). If meditation does have this effect, it may have implications for combatting social ills such prejudice and discrimination.
Tom Farsides (my supervisor) and I were interested in the technique known to Buddhists as Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM), which involves creating a mental image of someone and then wishing that person health and happiness. First this is done for people that this is easy for (e.g. a sick puppy) and then it is done towards people you feel neutral towards and finally towards those ‘difficult’ people in your life (although in Buddhism these are classically called ‘enemies’!). The Dalai Lama has called this process ‘widening the circle of love’. We wanted to see whether getting people to do LKM towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce what is known as implicit racial bias, which is the largely automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group. This test (which you can take yourself online at Project Implicit: projectimplicit.com) is a series of reaction time tests where people are asked to match up positive and negative words with faces that belong to either their own or another ethnic group. On average people are quicker to match positive words with their own group and quicker to match negative words to the other group. This produces a bias ‘score’ that is considered a more robust measure of prejudice than traditional questionnaire data, which are known to be strongly influenced by social desirability.
We got students identifying as ‘white’ to look at a photo of a gender-matched black person. Then they either received taped LKM instructions, or had instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes.
Even with this short induction, those doing LKM showed significantly less implicit bias than those in the control condition. Additionally we measured levels of positive emotions that were either ‘other-regarding’ (e.g. love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self directed (e.g. contentment, joy, pride) and found that people doing LKM showed large increases specifically in these other-regarding emotions. Through some statistical untangling, these other-regarding emotions were found to be what drive the reduction of bias.
These results seem to indicate that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.
Reference: Stell, A. J., & Farsides, T. (2015). Brief loving-kindness meditation reduces racial bias, mediated by positive other-regarding emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 1-8.
Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.