Book Review — Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias

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Published: July 26, 2020 4:30 AM

Such biases are quite strong and also manifest in terms of conscious bias against a race or community and become all-pervasive.

A file photo of women clad in burqas in the Charminar area of Hyderabad(Bloomberg)A file photo of women clad in burqas in the Charminar area of Hyderabad (Bloomberg)

‘Sway’ by Pragya Agarwal is quite a delightful book that gets into our subconscious and reveals the unconscious bias that exists in our mind that manifest in terms of behaviour or reactions even before we are aware of them. Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist and while she is an Indian by origin, is a citizen of the UK. But her appearance and that of her children make her stand out for differential treatment even in her homeland.

Such biases are quite strong and also manifest in terms of conscious bias against a race or community and become all-pervasive. The ban on, say headgear for women, appears to be a conscious bias but is driven by the unconscious, which makes people generalise and come to certain conclusions.

The author takes us through various biases that exist when we deal with people. Gender bias has been spoken of, as it is very evident and almost all working women can testify to this disadvantage where there are certain preconceived notions when hiring people for certain jobs. The bias comes out further quite interestingly when we see the design of something like passenger cars where intrinsically the seats and positioning of the pedals are tuned to men rather than women. This means that women have to make the adjustments rather than men who have the vehicle tailormade for their physical stature.

She also gives an example of Microsoft’s gaming device that was to pick up commands from signalling of hands or voice. It was geared to men in a certain age group, and women and children got left out. The bias, hence, also enters AI, which, when running algorithms with data, would always reinforce the best selection as being men rather than women. This means that even technology is not free from such biases, probably because it is designed by people who reinforce the same in their work.

Race is another disadvantage in society and this holds true in all countries, especially where the mixed-race country is dominated by the local gene. There is typecasting of race everywhere and we can see it in India too where coming from a particular region makes one get bucketed under certain preconceived notions, which can either help one in a job interview or even work against the person by virtue of this unconscious bias.

Agarwal talks of other biases that come from something as rudimentary as looks. The so-called good-looking people stand a better chance at getting jobs and even credits in universities. Studies were conducted which showed how essays were marked when the person was not seen by the evaluator and when the face was shown. The better-looking ones performed better when the evaluator saw their faces. This is another bias which comes at the time of recruitment where looks matter. This can also be carried further to heads of states where often a less good-looking person could be at a disadvantage. The author again says that this is ‘unconscious’ because even experiments involving babies show that they tend to spend more time looking at what are considered to be good-looking things, including people, and could also offer smiles as a reward!

Another area where there can generally be a disadvantage is ageism, where older people are looked down upon. This is surprising because there was a time when age went with experience and people looked up to them with respect. But today when it comes to hiring people, age is a drawback as it is assumed that people slow down with age and several jobs require quick thinking and movement which does not go with age. Hence often even when jobs are advertised with an age range, the lower limit would be more attractive for potential employers compared with the elderly.

Agarwal gives several examples of experiments that have proved such biases which exist and hence this leads to stereotyping or type-casting. It affects all areas of our lives when we look for admission or a job or compete, as the other person is always typecasting us as being of a certain bucket, which may or may not be right. It can lead to prejudices and as seen in the western world, race and religion are often associated with certain negative qualities leading to discrimination and ostracisation. In fact, the concept of ghettoisation is a result of such prejudices that come for minorities in countries where they tend to live in clusters and for all purposes are looked upon as being ‘others’ even though they are citizens of the same country. Hence, the entire concept becomes self-fulfilling.

The challenge, according to the author, is to break these stereotypes, which is difficult because these are not conscious to begin with. Also, at times, this stereotyping is perpetuated by the persons concerned where women may not trust women directors, with the author giving the example of Anne Hathaway. Hence, every bucket of people who are typecast also follow this instinct, thus reinforcing the theories that have been informally set in the mind.

Pragya Agarwal does make everyone aware of these biases and leaves it to us as individuals to bring about changes. Some have been carried down the ages and have become conscious bias. Ideally a multicultural setting with no preconceived biases, whether it comes to subjects or games, where equal opportunities are provided, are a starting point. But exposure to culture outside the book like the company one keeps and the movies one watches and the news that one reads will make this task very difficult.

The author does not say so but one can conclude that maybe such things have to be finally taught in the classroom so that the future generations are consciously told not to develop such unconscious biases!

The author is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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