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We live in times in which we’re acutely aware of prejudice, and we rightly point a finger at it.

But why is it that we’re less likely to acknowledge the finger pointing back at us that makes us aware of our own unintentional snap judgements?

Behavioural scientist and author Dr Pragya Agarwal joins host Ross Ashcroft to unravel the basis of unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

According to Dr. Agarwal, unconscious bias is a product of entrenched structural biases and prejudices that manifest in our decision-making, the way we interact with other people and the stereotypes we form. The academic and author posits that these biases can be helpful in as much as they provide the cognitive shortcuts required to help us make decisions and process information.

Agarwal says that although the biases have been hard-wired into our brains as part of our evolutionary past, we nevertheless have a responsibility to be aware of them when we interact with others. We also need to be aware of how biases reinforce existing inequalities.

The Behavioural Scientist cites two related news commentaries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to highlight how systemic biases can shape our perceptions of events.

In the first, a black man who was carrying a pack of bread whilst wading through the floodwaters, was reported as having looted a nearby grocery store. In the second, two white people were doing the same but were described as having found food in the nearby grocery store.

Reducing the mental load

In her book, ‘Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’, Agarwal talks about how the human brain works at speed to confirm our biases and explains how it doesn’t have the capacity to process all the information that bombards it in a rational or logical manner. Shortcuts in the brain are used to help reduce this mental load.

Neuroplasticity research has shown that the brains pathways are constantly being adapted and shaped by past experiences and memories. This helps to explain the reason why biases and prejudices are learned (and, conversely, can be unlearned) throughout life. Problems have arisen over recent decades in circumstances where an over-riding narrative of implicit bias has dominated political discourse,

Thus, in regards to race relations, Professor of Law and Biology and author of ‘Race on the Brain’ Jonathan Kahn, argues that what has emerged has been a “kind of default go-to mechanism where instead of calling something racist and being accountable for it, you call it implicit bias, a cognitive state that you’re unconscious of.” So whilst unconscious bias is a legitimate concern, it is almost certainly being exploited by the political class in order to deflect attention away from structural racist issues.

Activating stereotypes

Another problem related to unconscious bias, is intuition. We are often told to trust our instincts and our judgments of people from our first impressions.

But, as Agarwal says:

“We have to be cautious because when we are doing that, however beneficial it might be in certain contexts, we are inevitably falling back on our learned experiences and memories. And so we have to be careful that we are not activating stereotypes without weighing up the different options that we have.”

The academic cites a case in her book about medical and healthcare professionals who talk about how when they are tired and rushed off their feet, they don’t have the time or the mental capacity to assess all information in the most rational manner. So they have to trust the learned experiences they hold in their brain and match information accordingly. This means that sometimes errors can creep in. “We have to think about the implications of any decisions before we think about falling back on our gut instincts”, says Agarwal.

Unconscious and confirmation biases are embedded in the human psyche from an early age. Our friendships are formed on the basis of shared tribal interests and behaviours. Some of these tribal instincts can create a heightened bias or fear of what is unfamiliar that exists outside the group.

Agarwal highlights how this is often played out:

“So, for instance, if you’re walking in a park in the dark and you see a group of young men walking towards you, how likely is it that you’re going to cross over on the other side of the road because you have a certain stereotype or an assumption of what this group of young people are going to be like, especially if they are black men? Are you going to clutch your handbag more closely? Are you going to bring your child more closely towards you?”

Stepping outside the comfort zone

Although the present moment can free us from all the bias and shackles of the past, our learned experiences and memories are also important because they can help us create a sense of belonging and identity that we often rely on. But this reliance on the status quo can also create potential problems in circumstances where we step outside these comfort zones.

“I think that’s why we see so much resistance against anybody talking about racism or anti-racist movements or anybody even talking about unconscious bias. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes people reflect on their privileges and their status quo, which is hugely uncomfortable”, says Agarwal.

The academic acknowledges that self-awareness and the willingness to challenge preconceived ideas by metaphorically stepping into other people’s shoes, are the first steps towards a responsible engagement with confirmation bias:

“When you actually think about things from the other person’s perspective and take a different view, then you are more likely to understand and believe how our actions and words can be impacting other people and why they might have a racist or sexist undertone or any other kind of bias built into it. So I think those are the first steps we can adopt”, says Agarwal.

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