This type of meditation may reduce racial bias — in just 7 minutes

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Researchers Alexander Stell and Tom Farsides were interested in how the practice of Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) may reduce racial prejudice; results of their study are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) is a Buddhist concept that focuses on compassion and kindness toward self and others. Previous studies have shown that LKM positively impacts pro-social behavior and increases individual well-being and overall positive affect.

Participants in the study included 50 female and 19 male, white undergraduate students; mean age was 23.7 years. Participants responded to an ad “investigating the effect of imagery on categorization.”

Racial bias, strength of positive emotions during an intervention (in this case, participation if either a LKM or imagery focused group), and exposure to images of different races were part of the measurement process. Random assignment to either a LKM or imagery group was made (34 and 35 participants, respectively).

Over the course of 7 minutes, in the LKM group, relaxation was emphasized, and participants were instructed to imagine someone who cares deeply for them.  At the 4-minute mark, instructions were provided for participants to open their eyes and direct feelings of health, happiness and well-being toward an image of a gender matched black person. For the imagery group, instructions were virtually the same, but without a focus on directed loving kindness.

Stell and Farsides found that participants in the KLM group had a reduction in racial bias toward the targeted racial group, in this case, black people; these results were not present in a non-targeted group, Asian people. “One possible reason for this difference, which should be tested in future research, is that KLM enacts both a specific effect on the target of meditation and their group, as well as a diffuse, but perhaps weaker, effect on other groups.”  Additional results indicate that “other regarding positive emotions,” serve to mediate the practice of KLM on racial bias; in other words, positive emotions such as gratitude and love help predict bias reduction.

Study limitations include the undergraduate student sample and the brevity of the intervention. However, given the short-term nature of the intervention, reducing racial bias after just 7 minutes holds promise for the role KLM may play as an intervention in reducing prejudice.