A useful account of unconscious bias lacks sustained solutionsby Kate Womersley / June 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
Attractive people are less likely to commit crimes. Regional accents are not to be trusted. Hurricanes with male names are riskier than those with female ones. In Sway, behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal enumerates the variety of our unconscious biases, and the ways in which they shape individual behaviour and public life.
The book catalogues different types of bias—racism, sexism, ageism—as well as the mind’s cognitive shortcuts that sustain them. These include present bias (giving greater importance to the now than the future), confirmation bias (favouring information that conforms to beliefs we already hold) and hindsight bias (in retrospect, events seem more predictable than they really were).
Agarwal explains how algorithms magnify the implicit biases of their designers with an invisibility that makes their effects insidious. This feeds a “global assumption of ‘whiteness’’’: self-driving cars are more likely to hit people with darker skin, while electronic soap dispensers are more sensitive to white hands.
Although admirably detailed, Sway’s chapters lack sustained narratives that would make the statistics and studies really sting. Also missing is a sober consideration of how truly “unconscious” implicit biases are. Is there really a dividing line between the prejudices we know we hold, and those we cannot see?
Sway lacks the punch of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In addition, Agarwal’s solutions for “de-biasing” take up just three pages, and consist of vaguely imploring us to become aware of our blindspots, to make decisions slowly, avoid generic language about social groups and undertake unspecified “prejudice-breaking” training. Sway proves how much we already know about bias, yet how little we know about moving beyond it.
Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal (Bloomsbury, £16.99)