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How biased is Pakistani society?

Despite more awareness than ever, unconscious biases exist in all areas of society

By Omar Shazad Dada |
PUBLISHED November 14, 2021

Since time immemorial, human behaviour is determined by a complex interaction of both nature and nurture. And while philosophical interest in the human mind dates back to the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Persia and Greece, psychological interest in the human psyche has gained momentum in the 20th century. The studies have covered vast areas of interest including consumer products, self-esteem, political values, religious conflicts and more, however, the most striking and well-known research has focused on implicit biases toward members of socially disadvantaged groups which lack inclusion, especially women.

This programmed reaction to instinct and intuition in psychology, is called the ‘unconscious bias.’ Scientifically, the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second but the conscious minds is able to handle only 40 to 50 bits of information at the same time, leading our brains to take cognitive shortcuts that can lead to ‘unconscious bias,’ with serious consequences for how we perceive and act towards other people and make decisions.

The human mind takes help from one’s background, cultural environment and personal experiences to come up with a decision. Remember that time you automatically disengaged with people you felt weren’t similar to you? That was your unconscious bias! Your unconscious bias creeps up on you and sheds light on the limited cognitive capacity of humans. A recent Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tested over 700,000 subjects on the race-evaluation, found that over 70% of white participants more easily associated black faces with negative words (for example war and bad) and white faces with positive words (such as peace and good), a clear implicit (read: unconscious) preference for white faces over black faces.

Over the course of history, this bias has had a profound impact on the human society. Some would imagine that with increased awareness, the severity levels have decreased. But in reality, the risks associated with unconscious bias have maintained their intensity, if not increased in many ways. The advent of social media and its algorithms designed to continually reinforce people’s points of view and engage them with feeds based on their beliefs and preferences may actually be sharpening their biases and adding to the problem.

With the twenty-first century calling attention to breaking stereotypes, there is an emergence of social psychologists unpacking the concept of unconscious bias and its wide spectrum. Understanding the unconscious mind is understanding why it uses instinct instead of analysis. Some of the factors at play are socialisation, personal experiences and attributes and the media.

The human mind’s exposure to the aforementioned factors colours decisions and forms social filters, making it involuntarily pick one thing over the other – without proper analysis. And while research in the realm of psychology has recognised countless types of biases, this essay will highlight only four main types – confirmation bias, gender bias, in-group bias and beauty bias.

Confirmation Bias: First used by English Psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason, confirmation bias refers to one’s tendency to favour information that confirms their existing beliefs. To show the human mind’s selective collection of evidence, Wason (1960) conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s and hypothesised that instead of trying to falsify an assumption, humans tend to confirm it (Klein, 2019). The results of Wason’s study made him see the human mind as biased, as it focused on one possibility and ignored other alternatives.

The prevalence of confirmation bias can be seen from scientific research to individual beliefs. If a researcher has a lot riding on proving a certain hypothesis, he may be tempted to disregard evidence against the hypothesis whilst focusing on supporting evidence. For example, in 1988 Andrew Wakefield manipulated and ignored much data in order to link MRR vaccine with Autism. The disproven claim adversely impacted the medical community till 2010 and was fueled by an unconscious bias. Moreover, confirmation bias can be seen in self-fulfilling prophecies. If an individual believes he is destined to fail a critical test, he may panic during the test and hence sabotage his own chances of passing. Thus, the selection of evidence that supports what one already believes to be true while rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion became known as confirmation bias.

The second most common type of unconscious bias is gender bias. This is the tendency to prefer one gender over another or assume that one gender is superior to the other for a particular task – based on traditional feminine and masculine assigned traits. A common example of this with regards to how women are associated with being good with subjects such as language and sociology and men are associated with science or engineering courses.

German Psychologists Melanie C. Steffens and Petra Jelenec (2011) elaborate on this and argue that clear gender-related implicit biases can ultimately go so far as to dictate future career paths – which in turn perpetuates this stereotype. According to a recent study by McKinsey, between 40 million and 160 million women globally, may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles. At the current rate of progress, women will have to wait nearly 100 years to close the overall gender gap with men. Similarly, as per annual World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2020, the economic sphere will take 257 years to close.

Contemporary Pakistani society is replete with examples of gender biases. One such example is how single mothers are perceived. According to media reports, single parents - especially females - face inadequate policies at the workplace. This is because these policies are embedded with gendered assumptions about the nuclear family. In addition, a single mother might also face the added burden of being perceived as an absent parent if she is working hard to be financially independent for the child. Thus, single mothers are often unable to integrate into society because of gender bias. In Pakistan, family policies are usually based on the role of the traditional breadwinner given to the father, while the mothers are seen as the caregivers and this automatically bars women from entering the labour market on equal footings.

Next comes the group bias. In the 1970s and early 1980s, psychologists Henri Tajfel and Michael Billig conducted an in-depth study on 'in-group' bias. Derived from Tajfel’s social identity theory, the in-group bias is the tendency to automatically get along with people who belong to one’s group and have a prejudice against those who are from the ‘out group’ (Billig, 2002). Tajfel’s experiment had participants looking at pairs of paintings and marking which one they preferred. Following this, some were told that they had been assigned to a specific group based on their choices of painting, while some were randomly assigned by a coin toss. After this, each subject was to anonymously award money to another participant by marking it down in a booklet listed by codes of the group they had been assigned to.

The idea was to ascertain whether people would be more generous to their group members or whether they felt that they had something common with other group members because they liked the same paintings. Surprisingly, the results showed that people gave more money to members of their in-group, regardless of why that group had been formed – whether it was based on similar taste or a coin toss. On a larger scale, one would imagine, this might also result in bigoted views between cultures which lead to racism.

In contemporary Pakistani society, this bias may emerge in sectarian marriages or cultural groups. Sometimes these even transcend political ideologies. People belonging to the same ethnicity are often seen supporting each other. For example, Sindhis, Punjabis, Balochis, Pakhtuns etc. having a strong, close knit group and a sense of brotherhood amongst their circles. This can even be witnessed more so in subgroups in Punjabis, of different communal tribes: Malik, Chaudhry, Arain, Gujjar, Rajput etc. or in unrelenting loyalties or sense of belonging within the tribes in Sindh and Balochistan.

Another example in Pakistan of an in-group bias would be that of the LGBTQI+ community that exists in secrecy. People belonging to this community feel accepted and form their own relationships with others amongst the group, but the majority of people outside of this community feel uncomfortable with the ideology and do not show support.

Lastly, according to research in neuroscience, the human brain tends to categorise individuals into social categories, which are often based on visual cues. This calls attention to Beauty Bias — a tendency to judge people based on how attractive they are.

Adam J. Rubenstein (1999), argued that the beauty bias is present since infancy. Their experiment revolved around six-month-old babies preferring to look at photos of the same symmetrical, relatively attractive faces that adults do. This study also negated the idea of nurturing the bias since it was done on infants before socialisation from parents, peers and the media could influence their preferences.

Scientific evidence suggests that in both men and women, attractive faces cause greater activation in several brain areas involved in the processing of rewards. Dario Maestripiere’s (2016) academic review explaining the financial and pro-social biases in favour of attractive people highlights how people perceived as attractive are treated more favourably. For instance, conventionally attractive people are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired. In contrast, those who are not conventionally attractive – such as those who are shabbily dressed, have tattoos or are obese – are often discriminated against.

Specific to the Pakistani society, our notion of beauty for women is simple: Slim physique, fair complexion, dark long hair and an above average height. In general, little to no emphasis is laid on facial features or symmetry, and anyone whose complexion ranges from wheatish to dark, is automatically perceived to be less attractive. While philosophy claims beauty is an aesthetic experience within the laws of nature, the beauty bias transfers into an unshakable association between conventionally attractive people and long-term incomes.

There are challenges to the ‘Unconscious Bias’ hypothesis as the study further evolves. A central challenge emanates from the doubt whether people truly are unaware of their biases, and if so, in what way. In other words what aspect of this bias are they truly not paying attention to? Source, content, or behavioural? Similarly, another challenge emanates from the debate of psychologists on trait-like versus state-like bias. For instance, if you have always disliked drinking alcohol, and never drink it no matter the context, then your feelings can be termed as trait-like. However, if you sometimes decline to drink alcohol but sometimes indulge, depending on the company or your mood, then your feelings are more state-like. In the psychologist’s sense, implicit bias is gaining grounds on state-like dispositions. Lastly, the unconscious biases are being increasingly being attributed to situations. This approach has gained traction recently due to Payne and colleagues’ concept of the “wisdom of crowds” which suggests that differences between situations explains the difference of scores on implicit measures.

Research in the field of social psychology has identified countless types of human behaviour, but challenging unconscious biases is still an uphill task. We need to commit to a higher level of thinking and awareness so that we can initiate a culture of constructive dialog around diversity and inclusion and well-informed decision making. Of course, anyone committed to fighting against prejudice and discrimination will likely share this interest including Policymakers and Workplace Managers. Once we are there, we can learn to let go of our biases and take back control of how we decide and how we interact with others. Nevertheless, the contemporary world’s fixation on the phenomenon of unlearning and re-learning might widen cognitive capacity and close learning gaps by making humans question their own biases.

In conclusion, I believe that we should all research, question and challenge our own unconscious bias as it is imperative for us to survive in peace and harmony in a world that is so diverse and multicultural.

The author is a second year A-Levels student at Karachi Grammar School with a keen interest in humanities and social sciences. His aim is to raise awareness among young Pakistani readers of often neglected topics including diversity, inclusion, implicit bias and mental health.