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Prejudice and discrimination are deeply personal, but their effects are profound

Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Pragya Agarwal
Bloomsbury Sigma
448 pp.
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On an idyllic summer day in 2009, Pragya Agarwal and her 9-year-old daughter went shopping for a new school uniform. As they were walking back to their car, an armed police officer stopped them. The officer told them that a customer had reported them as people who “looked like shoplifters” and were “suspicious.” Agarwal and her daughter were eventually allowed to leave, but the consequences of that incident were enduring. Experiences like this underscore the prevalence of group-based biases that are the focus of Agarwal’s new book, Sway.

She begins by describing the origins of biases. In everyday life, we often have either too little or too much information to make optimal decisions. Our biases serve as mental shortcuts that help us make “good enough” decisions in a complex world. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability to quickly separate good from bad and friend from foe was essential for survival.

These biases, however, are prone to systematic errors that can have grave consequences in modern society. Take our preference for similarity: We seek out information that confirms views we already hold, prefer to live with people who are like us, and discriminate against those who do not share our views. We also prefer the status quo, meaning that we are biased toward current conditions, even when they reinforce the oppression of a minority group.

Agarwal documents biases across many social distinctions. She notes the double standards to which women in leadership are held, health care workers’ beliefs that Black individuals experience less severe pain than non-Black individuals, and the insidious stereotype of Asian people as “model minorities.” She describes how anti-fat stigma is internalized, how elderly people are perceived as burdens, and how accents can confer a host of hidden stereotypes. Although her approach is exhaustive, it falters in its synthesis.

Research tells us that prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination are pervasive. Less attention is paid to how to connect these findings together. What common psychological principles underlie the prevalence of unconsciously biased discrimination?

I suspect that Agarwal’s lack of emphasis on common principles is due to “concept creep”: an expansion of the idea of unconscious bias that goes beyond its original meaning (1). She assumes that many social disparities are necessarily caused by unconscious biases. However, many of the disparities she describes are better explained by structural causes or conscious prejudices. She writes, for example, that “implicit aversive attitudes” are an explanation for racial housing segregation. Racial housing segregation can often be more parsimoniously explained by institutional forces, such as a history of redlining, exclusionary zoning regulations, and economic inequalities. When psychological biases are considered, there is clearer evidence of real estate agents consciously steering homebuyers to certain neighborhoods on the basis of the homebuyers’ race rather than as a result of unconscious bias.

Another form of concept creep is in the use of the term “unconscious” to encompass biases that are subtle but conscious. Some may just be hidden (for example, an avowed racist who lies about the reasons for treating a racial minority poorly), or they may be fast to arise (for example, a visceral reaction to a person who speaks with a foreign accent).

In the book’s final chapter, Agarwal describes approaches for debiasing, including raising awareness of bias, confronting others tactfully, removing biasing information from job applications, perspective-taking, and role models. Many of these approaches have firm scientific backing and a track rec­ord of success in reducing prejudice and discrimination. But most of what she offers is psychologically and individually oriented. If the disparities Agarwal discusses have structural causes, then these individualistic approaches may fall short.

Promoting equality takes time, effort, and systemic change. The enduring influence of structural factors, such as unequal education and wealth, creates social environments that cannot be escaped. At the same time, structural inequalities depend on the countless individual choices that people make for others in everyday life. An integrated perspective that deeply considers the relationship between individuals and society would have helped illustrate a key lesson of research on inequality: Bias is deeply personal, but it is also universal.

References and Notes
1. N. Haslam, Psych. Inquiry 27, 1 (2016).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA.