To decrease your bias, increase your love
By Brittany Christian, Janina Steinmetz
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image ©: Ron Cogswell 2012
In the thick of violence and segregation Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed something profound, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. What he proposed was radical. At such an ugly time in our country’s history, fighting back against racism with physical force and equally abhorrent acts of violence would have been easily justified in the minds of most people, perhaps even deemed necessary. But, Martin Luther King proposed taking the high road. It wasn’t even that he focused on hating everyone less, but rather loving them more. Loving yourself enough to see your value and to take a stand, loving others enough to respect the lives that they had been given. It wasn’t weak. It wasn’t passive. It was audacious. It was active and it was undoubtedly revolutionary. In order to overwhelm our differences, we need to increase our love for others, and help instead of hinder each other’s search for purpose in life. A recent paper in the Journal of Experiment Psychology: General by Yoona Kang, a graduate student at Yale, and professors Jeremy Gray and John Dovidio suggests that Lovingkindness meditation practice may be one way to enhance this regard for our fellow men and women and decrease our negative attitudes towards them.
As the authors describe it, Lovingkindness meditation asks individuals to focus on the deep positive regard that they have for a close loved one and then to amplify and direct those positive feelings towards themselves, and others. Importantly, this exercise does not require participants to identify specific groups or subsets of people, but rather considers other sentient beings in a more holistic manner and focuses on the positive-emotions associated with loving the self and others. By strengthening these positive thoughts and feelings towards humanity, the authors hypothesized that practicing Lovingkindness meditation would actually decrease negative prejudices against two commonly marginalized groups: African-Americans and homeless individuals. To test this prediction, the authors ran an intervention study where for 6 weeks participants either 1) attended weekly classes where they practiced Lovingkindness mediation, 2) attended weekly classes where they merely talked about Lovingkindness meditation or 3) were on a ‘waiting list’ to attend Lovingkindness meditation classes at a later date (control condition).
Prior to the intervention, participants’ explicit (outward & conscious) and implicit (inward and subconscious) attitudes towards African-Americans and homeless people were assessed. To tap into implicit attitudes, psychologists often use a tool known as the Implicit Association Test, which allows them to surreptitiously assess how strongly specific groups of people are associated with positive and negative concepts. Next, depending upon the group that the participant was assigned to, they took part in a 6 week long intervention (or control). After the 6 weeks had passed, participants’ implicit and explicit attitudes towards African-Americans and homeless people were assessed again. Although the results revealed that participants’ explicitly stated attitudes were not influenced by the intervention, comparing the ‘pre-intervention’ implicit attitudes to those measured after the intervention revealed that practicing Lovingkindness meditation did indeed decrease individuals’ negative implicit biases towards the targeted out-groups. No changes in implicit attitudes were seen for participants in the control (i.e., wait list) condition or the Lovingkindness meditation discussion classes. What this suggests is that simply being exposed to the concepts of Lovingkindness meditation is not enough to change your implicit attitudes. Rather, it is necessary to intentionally practice developing and strengthening your love for other individuals.
Implicit attitudes, regardless of whether they are about people of a different race, religion, political affiliation, gender, or socio-economic status are particularly important because they are key predictors of behavior, especially in times of high cognitive stress. Explicit attitudes (when measured in a lab) are considerably less reliable because participants have a tendency to say what they think the researchers want to hear instead of how they really feel. In addition, it is possible (and actually quite common) to be entirely unaware of your implicit attitudes towards out-group members. It is because these attitudes are often unrecognized and have been formed over years of associations through exposure to the media and other experiences that, even with the best of intentions, are particularly difficult to change and control. That Lovingkindness meditation has the ability to influence such associations is a testament to Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s belief about the power of love to drive out hate. As previously suggested on the NPP website, by focusing on the power of kindness and love we will continue to see change in our own hearts and minds, ultimately spilling over into our actions. The benefits are two fold, fostering a more just and caring society and also giving us a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. Regardless of what it is that separates us, race, religion, resource or otherwise, let us focus instead on the power of love to bind us.