WASHINGTON — Mindfulness is praised by many for its ability to improve mental health and help lower stress. Could the practice also become a key tool in eliminating racism? According to new research, White people who practice mindfulness techniques are three times more likely to offer help to Black individuals.
Previous work in this area reveals that Whites are more likely to come to the aid of other White people in need. That pushed researchers from California State University San Marcos to examine how mindfulness training could change the narrative. The study, led by Professor Daniel Berry, is the first of its kind to find that even a small dose of mindfulness — a self-regulation skill that involves focusing on present experiences — can promote helpful behaviors in everyday life.
While earlier studies have only tested these questions in constrained lab settings, Berry and his team conducted this research adults’ daily comings and goings. The participants, all White people, kept daily diaries in which they were asked to disclose instances where they had the opportunity to help people over the course of two weeks. They described whether or not they chose to offer aid, as well as the race of the person who needed help.
Researchers report that those who took part in mindfulness training were more likely than non-trainees to help people regardless of race. However, it was found that the participants still favored helping other White people.
‘Mindfulness meditation promotes helping behavior regardless of race’
For the staged scenario experiment, self-identifying White participants were randomly assigned to complete four-day mindfulness meditation training or a placebo meditation training. Trainees were taught focused breathing exercises that rested their attention on the sensations of breathing, thoughts, and the feelings that came to mind.
While those in the placebo group were led to believe that they received real mindfulness meditation training, they completed breathing exercises that in actuality did not involve a mindful mindset.
“Practicing mindfulness meditation promotes helping behavior in everyday life toward others regardless of the race of the help recipient,” says Berry. “It is crucial that all participants believed that they were meditating; this allowed us to rule out that the possibility that mindfulness trainees acted more helpful because they thought that is what meditation was supposed to do.”
Before and after the training, participants were put into staged lab scenarios where they had the chance to help a Black person – either to help them pick up a stack of dropped papers or to offer their seat to a person on crutches. While in the scenarios, the researchers chose not to make the participants aware that their social behaviors were being closely studied.
In the staged scenarios, White people who had received mindfulness meditation training were three times more likely to help a Black person in need than a White person who did not receive any training. Despite this, the same participants were still more likely to help other White people.
“The results included two important qualifiers. First, mindfulness training only increased helping behavior among people who were less predisposed to experience mindfulness in daily life,” says Berry. “Second, participants in both trainings reported helping racial ingroup members more than out-group members.”
The period of helping was measured for two weeks after the training sessions had ended. Berry says that future research could examine whether mindfulness training could produce a more lasting change in the way we help others. He explains that these findings play a critical role in learning more about the power of mindfulness and how it can be used in society.
“Another potential research direction is asking why mindfulness promotes helping behavior in everyday life,” says Berry. “Perhaps it is that people are better able to regulate their emotions going into these social interactions.”
The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.