Review: Sway by Pragya Agarwal (2020)

Sway by Pragya Agarwal


For the first time, behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer Dr Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, how they affect our decision-making, and how they reinforce and perpetuate systemic and structural inequalities.

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, colourism – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Throughout, Pragya clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science, answering questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when we are biased? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle 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. This book will enables us to open our eyes to our own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.


As part of my resolve to read more non-fiction last month, I finally read this book, which has been on my shelf for a while. I am so glad I read it, as it is a fascinating, deeply important study that gave me a lot to think about. I took my time with it and made plenty of notes, but I will still be going back to it again and again. I also have her new book, Wish We Knew What To Say, and am very much looking forward to reading it.

The style of the book is comfortingly factual. Dr Pragya Agarwal’s rigorous, meticulously researched exploration of unconscious bias is rooted in scientific evidence and backed up by descriptions of experiments and studies. She does include some personal anecdotes, and I found these touches of personal experience helpful in linking the theories to how they might be manifested in everyday life.

So much in this book is fascinating and eye-opening. I feel I learned a lot about how the brain works, the way it processes information, and how biases often stem from evolutionary responses: survival tactics based on a kind of short-hand of threat assessment. The author is quick to point out that such instincts are not an excuse to allow unconscious bias to go unchecked: one of the main drives of the book is the hope that by understanding these processes more fully, we can address and change them.

I could go on and on about specific chapters and themes in this book that struck me as deeply important, but I will just highlight a few of the key points that really caught my attention. The distinction between in-groups and out-groups is fascinating, and when the author moves on to discuss the echo chambers that we exist in when we ‘hang out’ on social media with like-minded people, it is increasingly clear just how massive the effect of this has become in our society. The myth of a ‘post-racial’ age is exploded, with Agarwal firmly in agreement that silence is complicity, and that it is not enough to be ‘not racist’ – we must be actively anti-racist if we are to make progress on this front.

Finally, the section on technology opened my eyes to the way in which unconscious bias can have pervasive influence beyond anything I might have imagined. That facial recognition software should carry within it an implicit bias towards whiteness perhaps should not have come as a shock to me, but it did, and the whole notion of AI bias blew my mind wide open.

This book is a comprehensive, fascinating, hugely important study of a topic that we need to address, constantly and consistently, even if it makes us uncomfortable. The situation is not hopeless; as Dr Agarwal states, we must try to find strategies to “mitigate and counter our unconscious biases.” Understanding those biases is the first step. I urge you to read this book: it will change the way you think about the way you think.

Sway by Pragya Agarwal is out now, published by Bloomsbury Sigma, and is available to purchase here.


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