Why it’s hard to be ‘objective’

Sanjay Badhe | Updated on June 08, 2020

Title: Sway: Unravelling unconscious bias Author: Pragya Agarwal Publisher: Bloomsbury Price: ₹1,843

Behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal spells out how our internal biases shape our worldviews

In a ‘normal’ world, this would have been a review of a new book that explores what impacts decision-making by people, and how these decisions are influenced by the environment, and more importantly, by biases.As someone who works in the area of consumer decision making, this would have made an interesting book to review given the growing interest in the understanding of consumer psychology, following the path of the behavioural economists and scientists popularised by Richard Thaler and the ‘nudge theory’.

However, in this rather difficult world, where hidden feelings, views and passions have been exposed over the last few months, this book actually provides an interesting cross-discipline view (though steeped in psychology) on the whole area of how biases, not only in the West but also in here , result in situations where ‘outsidering’, dehumanising, stereotyping and prejudice are becoming deciders of our future, impacting us in our daily lives, as well as in how we elect our leaders, follow opinions, decide on partners and react to situations.

So the book and the author’s ideas become a call for us all to re-examine our actions not just as consumers but also as citizens.

Types of biases

Pragya Agarwal, the author, is a UK-based behavioural scientist and inclusivity consultant, straddling different cultures ( she’s British of Indian origin), which reflects in her world view and approach to the area of bias. Having seen bias (as an outsider, woman, immigrant, foreigner), she often brings in her personal experience into her construct.

Biases exist because the conscious human brain doesn’t have an opportunity to process all the information that we get — so it uses interpretations. The book builds on how biases are formed by looking at the basics: explicit and implicit bias. Explicit biases are expressed in conversations, even in hate speech: anything that is done “deliberately and all on a conscious level”, and hence is the ‘visible part of bias’.

According the author, implicit (or unconscious) biases are those that “exist without our conscious knowledge, the ones that manifest themselves in our actions and reactions often without us realising it, rearing their heads when we least expect it and sometimes taking us by surprise.” And it is this implicit bias, which we don’t know we have, which impacts us in our relationships (in our treatment of minorities for example) , how we look at others in society (stereotyping) , how women are treated (forcing them to ‘opt out’ of work or reducing their self worth), as well as sticking to our opinions and ideas and looking for affirmation, even when wrong .

The key is understanding that these implicit biases start early, picked up as children from parents and teachers, apart from society itself. While they cannot be changed easily, they can be controlled. It is possibly in this that Agarwal differs from other behavioural economists, in that while she agrees with them that humans are irrational (a la Kahneman , Tversky, Ariely etc), she believes that these biases can be understood and controlled, but never removed.

The book is filled with examples of how implicit bias impacts us: in our treatment of women (health professionals take women’s complaints less seriously and so provide treatment less quickly); our comfort with ‘similar’ people or opinions/views, and seeking of ‘confirmation and affirmation’ of these ideas, as seen on social media and our seemingly more polarised discussions and interactions; stereotyping of the ‘other’, with help from mass media as well as language (accents used as cues); and even the way politicians speak to us today (US President Donald Trump being a prime example).

An example is the ‘perpetual foreigner’, a condition where no matter how well integrated, the immigrant is always questioned by the local, has become an issue across the world. Even the immigration debate, now being drummed up by politicians across the world, has dehumanised the word ‘illegal’.

Influencing behaviour

One interesting observation made in the book is that the ‘face’ of a person plays a key role in determining memberships and in signalling social cues (trustworthy, dis honest etc), and is an important tool to start forming opinions and bringing in implicit biases.

Implicit biases continue to work on our reactions to the world: since women get less respect, women in positions of power have to adapt by dressing more ‘masculine’ as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or ex-UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Accents are indicators, and there are instances of people using different accents with different sets of people.

If the book has a drawback, it’s the fact that a lot of research has been sighted, making it an interesting compendium of studies on the subject but with far too many reported results which cascade into each other. Some level of editing or putting the studies in footnotes/annexures would have helped overcome the impression that it reads in part like a ‘report on reports’. Also, while the author is passionate about the topic of bias, she probably covers too much: ageism, weight, height, language, partner selection, sexism, cyclone/storm naming, etc. Again, some of these are relevant; some probably have a tenuous connection to bias; while some probably needed a deeper analysis and have been just skimmed over. Interestingly, the ‘dog whistle’ and ‘political correctness’ concepts don’t get mentioned: it would have been interesting to see how ‘dog whistle’ works as a trigger in biases.

However, in essence, the book does work in bringing up ideas of how biases can impact our worldview. And while the impact of these on how we look at society is important, there are also lessons here for understanding how bias impacts our everyday life in terms of how we view different products, brands and services.

But these are perhaps, in today’s world, ‘smaller’ issues. And while the behavioural economists and scientists did persuade governments and companies to ‘persuade’ and ‘nudge’ ( the UK Government even set up a ‘nudge’ unit to work on social issues) perhaps persuading the citizen directly to refocus on what biases they have now in a burning world are more important than persuading the consumer on his/her behaviour.

The writer is a Mumbai-based marketing and retail consultant

Published on June 08, 2020

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