Pragya Agarwal on a World of Unconscious Bias

Posted on 25th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

The world is full of unconscious bias against many groups in society, and, in Sway, behavioural scientist, activist and writer Dr Pragya Agarwal challenges the assumptions, orthodoxies and ingrained prejudice prevalent in the modern world.    

As I hear the news of Elizabeth Warren, the only female candidate, pulling out of the presidential campaign in the USA, or of the rising racism against people of Chinese origin in light of the Coronavirus panic, I cannot help but wonder, yet again, how much bias, especially our unconscious biases, play a role in our lives, affecting our decisions and interactions with other people around us.

Even in books that we read, such biases affect what stories are told, and whose voices are heard. An in-depth study of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017 shows that male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles and are given far more speaking parts than females. Where other, non-human creatures feature in books, the gender bias is even more marked. Whenever an author reveals a creature’s sex, there is only a 27 per cent chance the character is female.

Even as I cover hundreds of scientific studies and research, popular media examples and personal stories in my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, I could only scratch the surface of the insidious nature of bias that pervades our society on many levels. We often think that unconscious bias only covers race and gender, but it is far more pervasive than that. Disability, sexuality, body size, profession and so on all in influence the assessments we make of people, and form the basis of our relationship with others and the world at large.

For instance, when YouTube launched the video upload feature for their app, 5–10 percent of videos were uploaded upside-down, and for a while Google developers were baffled. Eventually they figured out it wasn’t poor design; they had only considered right- handed users. Their unconscious bias had overlooked the fact that left-handed users would turn the phone/app by 180 degrees. In fact, left-handedness has suffered from an unfavourable perception for a long time. Scissors, musical instruments and knives are all designed for people who are right-handed, disadvantaging left-handed users. In this case, the prototypical category or the societal norm is right- handedness, and society is unconsciously biased towards it.

Technology can reinforce these biases too. We tend to believe that technology is objective, that it can help systems and processes be free of any biases, but this is not true. Any hopes we now have that technology will help remove biases and bring forth a more rational and unprejudiced era are problematic. In Sway, I discuss the way biases in the real-world become assimilated within the technology itself, for instance in recruitment platforms, search engines and social media algorithms. These algorithms create biases as well as learning from the biases that are so deeply entrenched in our society.

As a behavioural scientist, I have always been interested in what makes us react and behave as we do. Teaching user-interface design and knowledge representation, it became more apparent to me how bias is inherent in the actions we take and every decision we make. In my own academic research, as early as my master’s thesis, I started questioning the objectivity paradigm and how truly free from bias our technologies are. This book is the culmination of my own wide research and a deep-dive into the work done by others in this field. It is an exploration of the brain and behaviour, and finding synergies between society and psychology to try and understand why we act the way we do, how we think, learn and connect, and process information. I look at how changing technology and the way we are interacting and working is shaping our biases, but also being shaped in return; the way our brain processes biases and why; and the moral and ethical questions surrounding unconscious bias.

Talking about discrimination and prejudice isn’t easy. In some ways this has been a difficult book to write, to not only draw and reflect on my own personal experiences but to also weave disparate interdisciplinary threads into an effective narrative. Many of the case studies and examples in this book might be triggering to those who have experienced similar injustices. It might also make you more aware of your own privileges as the stark reality of your own biases become apparent or as you acknowledge the way your privileges provide you with an armour against many of the societal biases and stereotypes. The truth can be uncomfortable, but if we don’t face reality these implicit biases will shape and transform our society in a way that we had never thought possible.

Raymond Williams, a Welsh Marxist theorist, said in 1989, ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’. I believe that by addressing the biases at the individualistic level, we can begin to understand the societal and structural inequities and injustices. That is my hope and my aspiration, anyway.


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