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Event Review: Sway – The Science of Unconscious Bias

Written by: Amber O’Conner

Unconscious bias relates to a cognitive template through which humans process their environment, and how this template then processes information, often in ways that can produce prejudiced behaviour and discrimination. Although bias can lead to positive outcomes, it can also create negative effects when our responses to each other become influenced by assumptions and stereotypes. A more thorough scientific explanation can be found in Dr Pragya Agarwal’s Sway: The Science of Unconscious Bias.

Both this event and the book from which it takes its name are enriched by Dr Agarwal’s expertise as a behavioural scientist. Despite the difficulties involved in examining unconscious behaviour and implicit bias – since these can be more difficult to demonstrate than explicit bias, Dr Agarwal embeds science within her analysis. Throughout the event, Dr Agarwal used science as her base, explaining how unconscious bias can be evidenced in our distant ancestors as part of their survival instincts, as well as highlighting how neuroscience can be productive in the study of unconscious bias today. She also drew heavily on the significance of social conditioning, evaluating its relevance with the moderator of the talk, Dr Laura Kilby, a reader in social psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. However, the scientific rigour of this talk, though interesting, was not its biggest strength; rather, the event was made brilliant by its focus on people. Dr Agarwal and Dr Kilby’s conversation was constantly contextualised through reference to the people behind the science they study, to the impact that the manifestations of unconscious bias can have on human lives.

As in the book, references to specific biases were supported by accounts of real-life experience, with Dr Agarwal focusing particularly on racial prejudice and Dr Kilby then commenting upon an incident during which she was unconsciously biased against her own gender. Dr Kilby’s openness and her desire to share her own accounts proved that Dr Agarwal achieved what she set out to do, which was to use the book to “share diverse stories” and create a space in which readers could “connect” with the experience of others. It was evident Dr Kilby and Dr Agarwal could both connect well with each other because of the project of this book. Moreover, both women’s examples usefully illustrated Dr Agarwal’s message: that we all have certain biases, ones which we must acknowledge and actively work to overcome.

Whilst science was undoubtedly central to today’s talk, and used skilfully by Dr Agarwal as the starting point of each of the angles she pursued, it was never the end point. Equally, whilst unconscious bias was presented as the serious issue that it is, one that feeds into systemic injustice, Dr Agarwal continually moved towards another topic: the solutions. This talk was not only informative but inspirational. Dr Agarwal skilfully and eloquently discussed the importance of recognising both individual and collective responsibility for the varied biases present in our society, ones we have often internalised, and urged empathy and action to her listeners. She recommended critically evaluating the media you consume, exposing yourself to diverse stories, and teaching children to recognise and celebrate their differences as positive steps of action. I recommend also reading Sway: The Science of Unconscious Bias, because Dr Agarwal brilliantly explains unconscious bias, and as she herself argues, self-education and self-awareness are the first steps required to create positive change.

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