Sway: the Science of Unconscious Bias by Pragya Argawal

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This book represents what has largely become mainstream thinking on race, gender, sex and sexuality. Argawal argues that a large body of human behaviour, especially oppression, prejudice and discrimination, results from irrational decisions governed by our implicit or unconscious bias towards people who are different to us.

She combines her experiences as a single parent from India with her academic research in behavioural science.

Argawal suggests unconscious bias is a natural process, a legacy of evolution, latent within our psychology. Our ‘irrational’ decisions about people based on differences in appearance occur in milliseconds.

Rather than process a large amount of information, a cognitive sub-routine kicks in like a coping mechanism, helping us assign ourselves to the in-group, or out-group. Her numerous examples reveal bias in accents, gender, ethnicity and class. While illuminating, they rest on the results of controversial Impact Assessment Testing (IAT)

Typically an individual is asked to associate emotions and feelings with images of people displaying a variety of expressions and in different contexts.

The reaction times to their response act as a proxy for bias. The tests, devoid of the concrete reality they are supposedly testing, lack scientific reproducibility.

Argawal is forced to concede that there is “no reliable statistical evidence that IAT really measures our implicit bias”. The results could equally reflect wider institutionalised racism, and there is no evidence to suggest that once someone is aware of their bias they change their behaviour.

She implies that institutionalised racism is simply an accumulative effect of bias. She references Thomas Schelling’s paper Dynamic Models of Segregation in which ‘agents’, each represented by two different sets of coins or counters, are programmed to have a slight preference for being next to a similar agent.

From random orientations, after a number of iterations, segregation of the two types of agents is the result, forcing the conclusion, “racial segregation can arise even when no single individual, family, or group had any racist tendency but rather that many had only a slight racial preference”.

The impact of racism on slavery, Jim Crow, the needs of a racist power structure and lastly the struggles against them are excluded in such a model. It stretches credibility to present this as a prediction of psychology rather than the mathematical algorithm applied.

Unconscious bias depoliticises oppression. The proposed ‘debiasing’ amounts to individual life-style changes; a quick psychological fix, to un-think our racism, with the help of ‘experts’, is more reassuring than political
struggle against the power structures that benefit from it.

The origins and historical specificity and role of racism and sexism, is missing from Argawal’s book. So too is the impact of the struggle of the oppressed, not just in winning crucial gains such as universal suffrage, civil rights and equal pay, but in shaping wider cultural attitudes in society.

Her concern about oppression and inequality is to be welcomed. However, the extent to which in-group or out-group we associate with is a political question, determined by the bigger and wider impact of class struggles both on the individual psyche and on society.