Unconscious Bias

I listened to a talk by Dr. Praya Agarwal on unconscious bias which was based on her book –Sway (Agarwal, 2020) in which she talked clearly and extensively about the problems we have with even noticing bias. I took reams of notes which I have summarised below:

  • Racism often occurs in a subversive, insidious way
    • It is embedded in our structure
    • Everybody does not start from the same place
    • Social media and workplaces trap us into communities – so we often do not see what else is out there
  • Technology carries bias
    • One hand – levels field and allows access – but not all have access
    • Extroverted people have an advantage, others get left behind
  • Unconscious bias are the implicit produces embedded in our subconscious mind – which we are often simply not aware of
  • Children grow up in a gendered society from a very young age
    • Clothing/hair length etc
    • Boys are less likely to read a book or watch a film with a girl as the central character
    • Female authors are moe likely to be read by females
    • Girls form perceptions from early on about what they are likely to be good at – is that nurture or nature?
  • Biases can be ‘unlearnt’
  • Bias against black fathers – less nurturing – bias that black families are ‘broken’
  • Evolution developed the notions of in-groups and out-groups – because of limited resources
    • Still present – but nurture driven (no genetic basis)
  • You form a affinity with people like you – that extends to assumptions about their other qualities
  • There is a bias about status
    • More likely to trust people with a high/visible status
    • Based on fears/threat and concerns re own status
  • Fear is processed quickly via amygdala – often irrational
    • Leads to falling back onto instincts /first impressions rather than conscious thought
  • Decision making
    • Fast v slow
    • Automatic (quick and often stereotyped) v controlled (via frontal cortex – thought about)
    • Effortless v effort filled
    • Associative v rule based
  • Gender view of emotion
    • There is an assumption that women are more emotional and do not handle pressure asa well
    • Influences decisions in hiring formats
    • Men are thought to be more aggressive/authoritarian
    • Women are often assumed to be more compassionate
  • Bias about skin colour starts very early ?age 3
    • Parents need to discuss racial heritage especially in mixed race families
  • Newspaper articles often foster increased bias especially around racism/sexism.
    • You cannot automatically believe what is written
  • Privilege allows avoidance of bias (sometimes)
  • Remember that some biases are positive! – but this can lead to putting people in boxes.

Steps to avoid /minimise bias:

  • Avoid generalisations
    • This person, not all people
  • Avoid group thinking
  • Think twice and allow time for consideration
  • Look at things from a different perspective

Everybody always has biases but consciously reflecting on them can help retrain the brain. Social media can lead to extremism as people are afraid of not conforming and tend to join groups/get surrounded by people who agree with them. It is important to allow discussion and dissent or you only ever see what you already believe.

Interesting talk and well worth the time. I will add her book to my reading list.


Agarwal, P. (2020) Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. London: Bloomsbury Sigma.

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