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Sway: Dr Pragya Agarwal explores bias


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Today we're talking about Sway! Pragya’s book is a vital and fascinating study of prejudices - how we all have them, and what that means for the world we live in and interact with.

Anyone who is genuinely committed to building an anti racist, feminist future that includes our disabled, queer and marginalised communities - should really read this book. Because it’s brilliantly written and thoroughly enjoyable, but also because it is exhaustively researched and endlessly illuminating, and it’s practical. It will help you start where all this work must : with yourself.

You might believe that we live in a post-racial society, but racial tension and inequality is pernicious and pervasive. You might believe that gender inequality is a thing of the past, but it is still ubiquitous. Unconscious bias has become a frequently-used term in our vocabulary, but there are still so many myths around it. Pragya unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, and how they affect our decision-making, even in life and death situations.

She covers a wide range of implicit biases in depth, including age-ism, appearance, accents, sexism and aversive racism.

Throughout Sway, Pragya answers questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when our biases are activated? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

To give the book some context, and introduce it’s phenomenally talented author, we had a wee chat with Pragya, and here it is!

Lighthouse: How are you feeling just now?

Pragya: It is all a little strange, isn’t it? Over the years I have built this shell of resilience around me, and I am naturally a very stubborn person. So, in tough times, my will to survive and be hopeful and optimistic grows stronger. But, anxiety comes in waves. Today has been very, very hard but we start again tomorrow. But I know we are so privileged. To have a decent size garden, to live near the woods, to not have immediate urgent money worries. But what about those who don’t. This pandemic will make the stark contrast in our society between those who have and those who don’t so evident. I carry these anxieties and worries with me for the most marginalised, deprived and vulnerable in our society.

Lighouse: You are a very well established behaviour scientist, journalist and public speaker, when and why did you turn to writing a book?

Pragya: Books were my refuge from early childhood, and I always wrote, both fiction and non-fiction. As an academic, writing has always a huge part of my life for over 10 years, writing research articles, reports, books, some of which are on readings lists of leading academic courses around the world. As an academic, one has to learn to write for a diverse range of audience, and to make complex concepts accessible. As a journalist, I also learnt how to bring more of myself into my writing and away from the detached academic style of writing. This book seemed like a natural step forward.

Lighthouse: What kind of journey has Sway had from inception to publication?

Pragya: The research for this book has been going on for almost ten years. As an academic, I had been looking at scientific literature and doing my own surveys and data collection. As a diversity consultant, I had been working with organisations on creative inclusivity strategies for their organisations and this experience also fed into this book. Bringing all this together was very challenging. Once the proposal went forward and the contract was signed just before Christmas 2018, I only had around 8-9 months to submit the manuscript. I have taken a very inter-disciplinary approach to examining implicit biases. For this book, I read hundreds (and many more!) scientific research papers, across many disciplines including psychology, evolution, neuroscience, social science, linguistics, philosophy, machine learning and AI. I also interviewed many experts and researchers, as well as looked at the current myths and misconceptions around bias. I have also included personal stories because real life stories and narratives matter to ground the scientific studies. And, I also bring in examples and case studies from contemporary literature, and popular media. Over 450 pages, this is a hefty book! Once the manuscript was submitted, there were the edits and then various rounds of copyediting and proofreading. The whole process has been really fascinating.

Lighthouse: It feels like there was a sea-change in conversations around prejudice, and specifically racism in UK, after Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking To White People and Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant were published in 2017. As a writer and scientist exploring those issues does that ring true for you, and if so/if not, how so?

Pragya: These are both such influential books, and definitely changed the conversation and landscape around how we talk about race and prejudice. Reni’s book gave people vocabulary to articulate some of the things they’d been carrying around for a long time and exposed the systemic and structural nature of racism. But as we have seen with more recent discussions around race and racism, not just in this country but more widely around the world, we have a long way to go. Racism has not disappeared, but the nature of racism has changed – ‘racism without racists’ – and its expression and articulation is different. Thus, a post-racial illusion of the world is created where there is no structural racism or bigotry, and therefore any acts of racism are more aversive, less explicit, and seemingly ‘non-racial’.Racial bias and prejudice manifest themselves in the form of implicit actions and microaggressions too. This kind of behaviour might seem inconsequential, but such microaggressions are targeted at people based on their membership of a marginalised group, and in this way demean and devalue them, ‘othering’ them, highlighting their inferior status and marginalising them even further. There is so much more we need to highlight of the more subversive, implicit forms of prejudice, and the long-term effect that such microaggressions have.

Lighthouse: Did you have a reader in mind when you wrote Sway?

Pragya: As an author, when one writes a book, I think one just hopes that someone will read it. There are also times during those long nights writing the book when you just hope that no one ever reads it! Jokes aside, it sounds like a cliché but I really hoped that the book will resonate with most people, and that it would be accessible and useful to people all over the world. That is my hope and aspiration anyway.

Lighthouse: Well we certainly think it will be just that and we hope it finds many many readers because it is such a powerful and accessible book. Was there a particular impact you were hoping the book would have?

Pragya: Thank you so much! I am hoping this book will enable people to reflect and consider the forces that shape us all, opening our eyes to own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.Hopefully this book will help people understand that we are all biased, and we all carry stereotypes, and be more aware of how these biases affect our perception of other people, and how it affects our actions and interactions.There is also a false belief that somehow technology is unbiased, and that it is a panacea for all ill in society. But through this book, I also show that it is not the case. Technology is shaped by humans, and so it is shaped by the individual and societal biases. So, while technology reinforces and perpetuates existing biases, it also creates new forms of bias, and we need to examine social media, algorithms and AI with a probing eye. The aim is that this book will make people see that despite it becoming such a buzzword, unconscious bias is not just a trend, and remind people why we need more diverse and inclusive teams in our workplaces. Hopefully this book will make all of us kinder and more compassionate human beings, not with people who are just like us, but with everyone outside our echo chambers, and comfort zones.

Lighthouse: That’s a beautiful sentiment - We could really do with more compassion! After all the research & writing, was there anything or anyone you had to leave out of the final draft?

Pragya: Quite a bit. There just wasn’t space to accommodate everything that I found, and to go into as much detail as I would have liked. I had to lose around 25 thousand words in the final manuscript. Much of it was just streamlining and avoiding repetition but there were studies that I couldn’t include, and topics that I could not address. But I hope what I have in Sway is a good start.

Lighthouse: How does it feel having this part of you out in the world? It’s a bold and daring book that challenges a lot of, well, biases! Are you concerned about how it might be received?

Pragya: I am glad you think so. It certainly feels scary to put something like this out in the world. What we are seeing around us in most parts of the world is that partisan politics is taking centre stage, dividing people, and causing rifts and conflicts. It is imperative that at a time when we are all struggling to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do.But, many of these are contentious issues, and not everyone will agree with everything I say. As a writer, one cannot please everyone and should never aim to. Angela Saini has said that I speak about bias in a ‘non-polemic way’ which is really good to hear. I really hope that this book provides a non-judgemental avenue for people to reflect on their own biases and their own experiences. Writing this book was tough for me in some ways as it made me reflect on the prejudices I have faced as well as the privileges that I hold. And, reading it might be triggering for some people too. As a writer, I can never escape my own biases and I write from my own frame of reference no matter how objective one tries to be. And a reader will not be able to escape theirs either. In the end, as a writer, I can only focus on what truly believe in and hold that close.

Lighthouse: You have been incredibly generous with your time, thank you! I suppose most substantive questions are answered by the book itself (Read the book people!) So I thought we could wrap this up on a wee tangent; What music do you listen to when writing?

Pragya: I don’t usually listen to anything when writing. I have to be able to hear myself think when writing, if that makes sense. But sometimes, I listen to music when I am having a tough time making sense of my own words, and when things seem especially challenging. I really love ‘Va, pensiero’ also known as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from the opera Nabucco by Verdi. It recollects the period of Babylonian captivity after the loss of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and it resonates with so much strength and resilience against all odds. I also love Elgar Cello Concerto, especially the version played by Jacqueline du Pre.

To give a flavour of the book Pragya has also kindly recorded a wee video reading from the introduction, so have a wee listen, and if you’re keen, you can buy the book below!

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