Think about your circle of close friends. Naturally, you’re pretty like-minded – that’s why you chose them. But what other similarities do you share? How many are the same age, race, class and sexual orientation as you? Or here’s an interesting way to look at it – how many of them are different to you?
It was only when I did this mental exercise that I realised a lot of my friends are similar, especially those from a particular racial group, class and gender. For instance, you couldn’t swing a cat in a room full of my friends without hitting several South Asian women in their 30s and 40s. And there’s a chance that while friends may differ from you in one area, they’re generally similar.
This is down to confirmation bias (being attracted to people because they feel familiar), which is one type of unconscious bias. It might make sense to socialise with those who are ‘just like you’, and feeling like you ‘belong’ can seem comforting, but at times, unconscious bias can do us and others a disservice.
Whether that’s finding ourselves in the same cultural bubble, where everyone thinks the same without having their views challenged; or more starkly, experiencing the long arm of unconscious bias in the workplace, where people lose out on jobs because of a bias against our gender, religion or race.
WHAT IS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS AND HOW DO WE KNOW WE'RE DOING IT?
We pretty much all are. Unconscious bias can be an unwieldy concept. So in an attempt to explain it without recrimination, Dr Pragya Agarwal has written the stunningly detailed book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias.
‘Unconscious bias is a bias or prejudice that we often don’t realise we’re carrying,’ says Dr Agarwal. ‘For instance, I might react to certain situations in a particular way because I don’t like something, but I don’t explicitly know I do that. I may not like people who are chatty, but I don’t explicitly realise this. So I might react to a person who is talking a lot just because they are doing that, and I have formed a notion of what they are supposed to be like, and I carry that stereotypical view of a person without explicitly saying this is what I like or dislike.’
We all have a mental shorthand to figure out who is similar to us. Our brains create this so we can quickly make assessments. It’s linked back to a time when survival hinged on our ability to judge whether something was a threat. In the modern world, however, these shortcuts can be connected to a mental bedrock formed of unconscious bias. But Dr Agarwal explains that bias is not always negative.
‘A parent’s bias that their child is the cleverest and most beautiful is an evolutionary response, designed to trigger parental love and care,’ she writes. ‘This can extend to close friends and family, too. In such cases, mostly there is no negative bias “against” any group.’
However, she adds, ‘If this positive bias creates a negative discrimination against someone else, or it gives an advantage to the favoured group, then it becomes problematic.’
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
Ageism bias is an example of unconscious bias. Older people are teased about their cognitive abilities and, because there is the greater assumption they have physical or mental problems, they are often ignored or not taken seriously. Stereotypes are reinforced in advertising and TV characters showing older people as frail or terrible with technology.
Accent bias is also a form of unconscious bias. Accents have different associations, and we are more biased towards ones with negative connotations. For instance, people might assume northern accents represent less intelligence, or posh accents are a sign of private education. Of course, neither are true.
WHY DO OUR BRAINS FORM UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
There are three theories around why the brain forms unconscious bias: the first is that it looks for shortcuts to ease the load on the trillions of mental actions that take place at any given moment. These shortcuts can lead to the creation of stereotypes, such as assuming all Asians are good at maths or women can’t be as knowledgeable as men in certain roles.
The second is based on ‘better to be safe than sorry’. This is how we assess a potential threat and act in an overly cautious way, such as someone pulling their handbag closer to them or crossing the street to avoid you because of the colour of your skin (this has happened to me, and it cuts deep). The third is that bias is formed from the gap between the fight or flight responses we used to have when we were more primitive and the reality of our current existence, which is more sophisticated, safer and technologically advanced.
In between the science and studies in her book, Dr Agarwal also shares her own story. ‘I came over as a person of colour from India to the UK asa young, single parent. I was predominantly navigating very white spaces in academia, and even in India, as a girl, women were not supposed to be the predominant sex.’ On her first day at university in India, as one of seven women in a group of 60 men, a fellow student came up to her and joked: ‘Why are you here?’ The implication being that women didn’t study science.
In the UK, she has experienced it all, from people saying to her,‘You’re not very foreign,’ to the bias she experienced when her child had sepsis and medical professionals wouldn’t take her seriously. In that, she cites two biases: one around gender, because mothers are viewed as prone to hysteria; and another as a person of colour, because people from ethnic minorities are less likely to be diagnosed correctly.
CAN WE STOP UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
The short answer is yes, says Dr Agarwal. Her book explains that unconscious bias isn’t a moral issue, so it can be unlearned. It’s important to recognise because there isn’t one person among us who doesn’t get defensive when asked to confront their own bias.
A good starting point is to begin recognising your bias. That might be noticing the language you use to describe boys and girls and what they are good at, and that even extends to people from certain countries, such as thinking Germans are great at organisation or Americans are loud. If you’re worried about bias in recruitment, ask HR to conceal the gender and name of candidates to see if it makes a difference.
The biggest thing, Dr Agarwal says, is recognising that unconscious bias towards race, gender, sexual orientation or someone’s accent is almost always framed as a joke, which we then laugh along with. But laughing at the bias not only supports it but also reinforces that objecting to it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
‘Our knowledge of how our evolutionary psychology motivated us to behave does not align with our desires today,’ writes Dr Agarwal. If our desires are to be happy, content, feel safe and to live in a world that is more understanding and kind, then addressing a lot of the things we needlessly hold fear and judgement around, is a good place to start.
This feature is taken from the May issue of Red.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like