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Wired for Disharmony

As we witness the conflicts erupting around the world, it is not unusual to feel hopeless at times. But although there are plenty of people with explicit biases out there, there are more who simply need to understand their unconscious biases to contribute to a more peaceful world.



As the political season heats up here in the states, I’ve been somewhat dumbfounded about the direction we seem to be headed. Not so much about what politicians are saying, because politicians are going to say whatever is most likely to get them elected. But that so many people believe what politicians are saying is what confuses me. The negativity, hatred, violence and shift in values this whole movement is sparking is unlikely to make things better and since we have quite a few challenges already, it seems to me we would be wiser to pull together instead of ripping apart.


After giving it a lot of thought, I realized that a contributing factor to what’s occurring could be due to implicit or unconscious bias beyond the obvious racism and discrimination that is occurring pretty much everywhere. There are many types of cognitive biases, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll stick mainly to two, unconscious bias and conscious bias. Bias is, simply put, prejudice in favor of or against a thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.


Conscious or explicit bias is typically rooted in prejudice and discriminatory practices and as the name implies, we are aware of our feelings and attitudes, and related behaviors which are conducted with intent. This type of bias is processed neurologically at a conscious level as declarative, in words or in its extreme by overt negative behavior that can be expressed through physical and verbal harassment or through more subtle means such as exclusion. Some common examples include racism, sexism, ageism and most other isms where people demonstrate discrimination or even hatred toward people that are different from them.


Explicit bias is learned. It is the result of early learning as well as constant exposure to negative societal portrayals of specific groups. There’s a tendency to revert to group stereotypes in interactions with someone, if a person views that someone as a member of a group “other” than his or her own, known as an out-group. This “otherness” could be any difference, including religion, race, ethnicity, education level, gender, age, sexual preference, and the list goes on. Since it is learned thinking and behavior, it can be changed.


The problem of course is that most people who are consciously biased don’t believe they need to change. Education can provide the solution, but not the motivation and we see this most dramatically with white supremacy groups. But it exists around the world in more subtle ways as well. I think the increase of these groups across the globe could be the innate need to belong to a group or tribe, which is important for survival, and so because of the way the brain works, people migrate to those who are like them and then ignore any information that is contradictory or that could threaten their membership in that group. There are also larger forces at work playing on peoples’ conscious biases, stoking their fears and encouraging them that they are right and everyone else is wrong. You already know how I feel about right and wrong, so I won’t go there again today, but you can see the evidence of this just by watching the news.


I may have an explicit bias towards consciously biased people, as I don’t think they’re the type who would be interested in mindfulness, although I have no facts to back that up, just a stereotype. But I do know that we all have unconscious biases which can be just as dangerous and that is something we can address through mindfulness.


Implicit or unconscious bias operates outside of our awareness and can be in direct contradiction to our conscious beliefs and values. What is so dangerous about implicit bias is that it automatically seeps into our thoughts or behavior and is outside of our full awareness. We believe we believe something, but unconsciously, we don’t.


We continuously run unconscious, automatic thoughts and these automatic thoughts affect the approximately 35,000 daily decisions we make chock full of implicit bias. This is a function of the brain designed to increase brain processing efficiency and protect us from danger, but in reality, implicit bias can interfere with decision-making, hiring practices, clinical assessment and a myriad of other actions, and everyone has it to some degree, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and the rest of the list. This is not to say that everyone is necessarily prejudiced or inclined to discriminate against other people. It simply means that our brains are working in a way that makes associations and generalizations and that most of us are unaware of it.


As the brain is continuously processing information driving the decisions we make and actions we take, the concept of the association principle comes into play. Upon receiving any kind of information, the brain instantly searches for links, patterns, associations, and relationships with the knowledge it already has stored. This principle is at the very root of the racial disparities and gender inequalities that exist in our societies. It results in our tendency to associate unrelated information, prioritize information that is in alignment with our existing beliefs and to focus on dominant information while ignoring relevant information that isn’t easy to recognize.


As a result, we tend to classify people, events and ideas into categories that emerge out of stereotypical mixtures of their traits and features. Neuroscience indicates that the brain also has a unique ability to differentiate between those who are similar to us, or our in-group, from those who are not, or the out-group, which I do suspect is part of what’s contributing to so much of the tumult these days.


Implicit bias is also a result of the brain's tendency to try to simplify information, because we’re inundated with more information than we can process. Mental shortcuts make it faster and easier for the brain to sort through all of this data, but unfortunately, this stereotyping and categorizing of out-groups only strengthens our implicit bias.


Our experiences and social conditioning also play a role. Implicit biases are influenced by experiences, although these attitudes may not be the result of direct personal experience. As with explicit bias, cultural conditioning, media portrayals, and how we are raised can all contribute to the implicit associations that we form about the members of out-groups.


The key feature of implicit bias is unconscious or automatic thinking. It’s wired in our brains and although we may feel strongly that we believe in equality and justice for all, inwardly we may be running a pattern that is contradictive to those conscious beliefs. When we’re faced with understanding or acting on complex information, our cognitive systems go into action to simplify the effort through categorizing or stereotyping, rather than processing the individual details of the situation. If the brain identifies the information as like us or in-group, we don’t feel threatened and we can access positive emotions like compassion or empathy towards others. But if the brain determines the information is not like us or is an out-group, differential treatment ensues, from reduced interest and empathy to tripping the amygdala to send out the fight or flight response.


So are we doomed to permanent division and distrust and even worse? Fortunately, no. The most important step in reversing or minimizing implicit bias is awareness that we have it. Once we accept that we do indeed have it, we can take steps to reduce it, which could include specific trainings or education, but another proven antidote is mindfulness.

Research shows that mindfulness and meditation can result in relying less on previously established associations. Through mindfulness meditation, we focus on the present and learn to view thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally as mental events, rather than as part of who we are. This in turn allows us to understand and reflect on these events as fleeting moments that are separate from self, which reduces our natural tendency toward reaction and automatic assessment.


Studies also suggest that mindfulness meditation minimizes both the impact and influence of past experiences on the present moment, like the inclination to rely on past information to solve current problems. By decreasing reliance on past associations in memory, mindfulness is thought to free people to choose actions more thoughtfully and with less bias from those past associations. A brief 10-minute mindfulness meditation was shown in a recent study to reduce implicit race and age bias in part as a result of a reduction in the automatic activation of negative associations. The meditation wasn’t even specifically directed toward the remediation of bias or for any purpose other than to be mindful.


Other mindfulness practices that can reduce unconscious bias include focusing on seeing people as individuals. When you catch yourself thinking stereotypically, simply turn your attention to the uniqueness of the individual or group that you’re interacting with. Remember not to judge yourself. Just acknowledge that your automatic thinking might have taken over and gently return it to the present moment and situation. You can also try adjusting your perspective. How would you behave or respond if you were in the other person or group’s situation? Keep in mind that yoga, breathing exercises or any contemplative practice can increase mindfulness which allows you to be more aware of your thoughts and actions.


It can sometimes seem impossible that we’ll ever all just get along, but we could if we choose to. I find it absolutely fascinating that simply practicing mindfulness and meditation can reduce implicit bias, increase compassion and empathy, allow us to regulate our emotions and encourage us to recognize the connectedness of all of us. Seems like a very simple solution to a lot of very difficult and complex problems.


Consider what a difference you could make for yourself and others by practicing and modeling mindfulness in your home, company or community. Sharon Salzberg said, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.” I hope this serves as a good reminder.




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