As long as we make decisions on the basis of discretion or intuition, like the banning of flights from India, many of these decisions will invariably fall prey to bias – no matter how well-meaning we are, writes Ananish Chaudhuri
In the aftermath of New Zealand banning flights from India, I have been thinking a lot about unconscious bias. The problem with unconscious bias is exactly that; it lurks beneath our consciousness and when pointed out it causes outrage. Me, biased? No way, never.
This is how our Prime Minister responded when asked this question. I am sure she would never consider herself as being biased but unfortunately this is how her decision has been perceived by those at the receiving end.
Countries like France, UK, USA, Canada or Germany are recording many more cases per million than India. Yet those flights are not banned and will not be.
Some have noted that observed numbers from India are high. This is irrelevant. Citizens and residents are being denied fundamental rights on the basis of just a positive PCR test!
Portuguese judges have recently rejected such testing, saying: “In view of current scientific evidence, this test shows itself to be unable to determine beyond reasonable doubt that such positivity corresponds, in fact, to the infection of a person by the SARS-CoV-2 virus”.
When a non-white resident of South Auckland violates Covid protocols he or she faces the “judgment of the whole nation”. Yet, when white visitors from the UK drive from Auckland to Wellington and violate protocol along the way, we remain unperturbed.
This is commonplace. Indians are outraged if someone waves a Pakistani flag at an India-Pakistan cricket game; yet those same Indians don’t think twice about waving Indian flags at India-New Zealand games.
The problem is that we are continually wary of “the other”; those who don’t look like us; don’t have the same skin colour; don’t speak the same language or worship the same god.
If our Government actually declared a set of specific criteria for when and why flights from specific countries will be banned, this would insure them against charges of bias; assuming of course that they followed through when the conditions were met.
The police officer who shot Daunte Wright is for all practical purposes an honest and upstanding person with long experience. Ostensibly, she never intended to shoot Wright. She was just reaching for her taser and shot him by mistake. But why was she reaching for her taser in the first place? Did Wright put her in grave danger? Would she have been so ready to pull out her taser if Wright was white?
A common answer to such incidents is to force people to undergo sensitivity training. When two black customers were arrested at a Starbucks for supposedly loitering even though they were simply waiting for a third person to show up for a meeting, what did Starbucks do? They shut all their US stores and forced their workers to undergo training.
Yet, much research suggests that such training is useless. In fact, they are detrimental. Because the training subsequently becomes a licence for biased behaviour. How can I be biased when I have had training on what not to do?
So is there anything that we can do about this?
The first step of course is to concede that yes, all of us, no matter how well-meaning we think we may be, are liable to fall prey to unconscious bias.
By and large most of us will not find ourselves in situations where such biases come into play; and even if we do they will be few and far between. This implies that we will have few opportunities to confront such situations or take lessons from these.
Second, unconscious biases become far more pronounced in times of stress, when we are under great physical and/or mental stress.
How can we de-bias ourselves?
First, we need to engage in perspective taking. Walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
The Prime Minister should ask herself how they would have responded if for instance the very lucrative Indian Premier League announced that they were not going to allow Kiwis to participate any longer. (Pakistani players are not allowed to take part.)
India is still a very poor country but it does have some very rich people. In a population of 1.3 billion people, even if 2 percent are well-off this is still 26 million people; or around five New Zealands. If 10 percent are well-off then this is 130 million people; more than twice the size of the UK. What if they banned all New Zealand exports? Would that not cause us outrage?
Is the Covid-19 risk really so high that we are willing to take this extraordinary step?
The second de-biasing technique is to reduce the amount of discretion in decision-making. This prevents a shifting of the goal-posts after the fact.
In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande, an American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, talks about the importance of check-lists. He suggests that the reason pilots seldom crash planes while doctors often botch operations is that the former have very detailed checklists of dos and don’ts while the latter often don’t.
The advantage of having such checklists is that it minimises the role played by the instinctive or automatic components of our brain and engages the slower, more deliberative part.
If police officers had a specific checklist, one that they had to go over with the partner, of exactly what situations require the drawing of a firearm, then a lot of these deaths could be avoided. At the very least this would address disparities in the way Whites and Blacks are treated.
Similarly if our Government actually declared a set of specific criteria for when and why flights from specific countries will be banned, this would insure them against charges of bias; assuming of course that they followed through when the conditions were met.
In the meantime, as long as we make decisions on the basis of discretion and/or intuition, especially in times of stress, many such decisions will invariably fall prey to bias, no matter how well-meaning we are.