Can Mindfulness Help Mitigate Unconscious Bias?

august 2019 elmer dixon executive diversity services implicit bias mindfulness mitigate social stereotypes unconscious bias Aug 15, 2019

By Elmer Dixon, President, Executive Diversity Services

Mindfulness is an intense awareness of what you are sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgement. On the flip side, unconscious bias could be said to be an intense interpretation or judgement, without awareness of what or even why you are sensing and feeling in the moment. So, what happens when the two collide?


Mindfulness practices, including breathing methods, guided imagery and such have become popular in the past decade as a means of reducing stress, anxiety and pain.  The roots of mindfulness, however, reach 2,500 years into the past, to the teachings of Buddha.

Jon Kabat-Zinn brought Mindfulness to the US and connected it to stress-reduction in 1979. “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training,” says Kabat-Zinn. He adds that it’s “a means of paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).


Bias is prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences.

Unconscious biases, also called implicit biases, are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.


We all use a perception process to respond to our world (see Perception Model image for reference). How we see things–the input or stimulus we receive from the external world– is interpreted through the filters of our own life history and experiences. Of all these filters, culture has the biggest influence. This is because of its visible and invisible aspects, including how culture teaches values, communication styles, behaviors and perceptions.

Simply having unconscious bias is statement of fact. What makes it problematic is when we react unconsciously as well. Mindfulness, when combined with unconscious bias training, can give you tools to make the connection between your filters and your resulting assumptions about a person or situation.

This affords you the ability to think and manage your response, to control your “knee-jerk” reaction, before you act. And that is the critical component. Unconscious bias is natural. However, how you respond is what you can consciously control. (Read more about the Physiognomy of Unconscious Bias here.)


Many of us have been taught and continue to teach each other to pretend to be blind to any visible differences such as gender, race/ethnicity, disability, etc.  Why is this a problem?  Because we do notice difference.  But when we deal with each other, we have been taught to act like we don’t notice!  Many of us learned it very early when, as children, we pointed out someone’s difference (e.g., color, disability, etc.) and were silenced or told that “It is not nice to talk about other people.”

Studies have shown empirical data that mindfulness can, among other things, lead to less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, enhanced self-insight and fear modulation. (See insights to the research here.)

As mindfulness helps you become more aware of a particular bias, it holds less sway over your actions. Noticing a tendency to lean in one direction or another, we can consciously choose a new response.

And each time we become cognizant of a previously unconscious bias, our world expands.



Davis, Daphne M PhD and Hayes, Jeffrey A. PhD. What are the benefits of mindfulness. (accessed July 22, 2019)

Lueke, Adam. Episode 114 :: Adam Lueke :: Mindfulness and Implicit Bias Reduction.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Mindfulness Exercises (accessed July 22, 2019)

Shea, Christopher, MA, CRAT, CAC-AD, LCC. A Brief History of Mindfulness in the USA and Its Impact on Our Lives  (accessed July 22, 2019)

Sofer, Oren Jay. Mindfulness and Transforming Bias.  (accessed July 22, 2019)

Reprinted with permission from the Executive Diversity Services Blog: