Book Club: Decreasing Prejudice Through Mindful Thinking

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Book Club: Decreasing Prejudice Through Mindful Thinking

Most attempts to combat prejudice have been aimed at reducing our tendency to categorize other people, says Ellen J. Langer in chapter nine of Mindfulness. This week we are talking about decreasing prejudice by increasing discrimination.

Say what?

Since it is a natural human tendency to categorize, Langer says, any attempt to eliminate bias by attempting to eliminate the perception of differences may be doomed to fail…

Rather, a mindful approach to tackling prejudice involves perceiving more differences among people.

Mindful Curiosity

Sometimes the work I do with patients on the medical rehabilitation unit where I work involves some type of community reintegration. Before the patient participates in a community outing, we talk about different reactions the public may have to their particular presentation—whether it involves an assistive device such as a wheelchair or some other alteration of their appearance, such as an amputation. This is important to consider because of what Ellen J. Langer calls mindful curiosity. People stare at things they perceive as unusual. We notice things that are different.

Mindful curiosity may prove problematic when the novel stimulus is a person. In our culture it is considered rude to stare at a person. The conflict that arises when one wants to stare but feels it’s inappropriate often leads to avoiding the person perceived as different altogether—therefore promoting prejudice.

Langer and her colleagues conducted an experiment in which individuals in one group were able to sate their curiosity about a person perceived as different (prior to meeting they were able to observe them through a one-way mirror without the person knowing), and individuals in the control group were not given opportunity.

The study results indicated that individuals who are allowed to indulge mindful curiosity are less likely to distance themselves from the person seen as different. Langer concludes that the study results suggest many ways in which encounters with people seen as different…can be enhanced by providing an outlet for mindful curiosity.

Mindfully Different

Langer notes that individuals with a disability or deviant label of any kind can lead that person to question the mindset of a group. Because of the challenges that individuals with sensory or physical handicaps face, they must approach their environment in a more mindful fashion. This leads to more creative thinking, which, unfortunately, is sometimes viewed as bizarre by the rest of us.

Disabling Mindsets

When mindless stereotypes (premature cognitive commitments) are uncritically accepted, we often fail to see the person most suited for a certain job. It is a disabling mindset to think in terms of polarized categories such as black and white, normal and disabled, gay and straight. Langer uses the example of the school football team who overlooks the best football strategist because she is in a wheelchair. One way to defeat prejudice is to further breakdown our usual categorical distinctions—see each individual’s unique gifts and let them stand on their own.  

Discrimination without Prejudice

Langer’s research indicates that training in mindfulness results in less indiscriminate discrimination. Children who were asked to think of multiple answers to questions pertaining to people with disabilities later performed better on a test of prejudice than children who were asked to only give one answer. Langer says these results show that children can be taught that handicaps are function-specific and not person-specific.

Once again we see the value of considering context in mindful thinking. When we make global labels and fail to see each individual’s strengths, we are guilty of mindlessness.

…If we keep in mind the importance of context and the existence of multiple perspectives, we see that the perception of skills and handicaps changes constantly, depending on the situation and the vantage point of the observer. Such awareness prevents us from regarding a handicap as a person’s identity…

Because we are more than just the sum of our parts.

These are all good thoughts but I am left wondering how we can implement these principles in our daily work. Any ideas?  You can share your thoughts in the comment section or link up below with a post at your blog.

Next week we’ll be discussing our last chapter in this thought-provoking book:Mindfulness and Health. Stay tuned for the next book club announcement!


Image by Pavel Tcholachov. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess.