Understanding the forces that shape human behavior is a key element of emotional intelligence, strong relationships and successful leadership. In the book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, Dr. Pragya Agarwal offers an insightful look at how our behavior is influenced by unconscious bias. Drawing on a wide range of research from psychology to neuroscience, Agarwal shows how our decision-making processes can be influenced by factors such as emotions, social norms, and cognitive shortcuts. Why is this important? Because in this global world, we encounter people from all walks of life who have much to teach us. Recognizing our unconscious human tendency to put up walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gives us an opportunity to take appropriate action rather than allowing our bias to lead the way.
The Three Theories
As someone who diligently tries to be unbiased, Sway was particularly difficult to read. However, after understanding the three theories about how our implicit biases are formed, I feel better equipped to seek awareness in how they show up in my life. The first theory is not a new one, as we studied it via Kahneman—that the brain looks for short-cuts to ease the load and be more efficient in mental processing. While that fast brain may save us time and energy, it does no favors in helping us have a neutral mind about other people. The second theory is that the human brain adopts the worst-case scenario to protect us from potential harm. And the third (the artefact theory) “is that biases are a product of applying the wrong strategies in the wrong context.” 
Us vs Them
The neuroscience research included in Sway was captivating. The idea that we can see which areas of the brain light up when certain situations occur is extraordinary. Even more interesting is how these studies show that humans are hard wired to fear people who are different from them. I wrote the following in a blog about Fast and Slow by Kahneman and it also directly applies to my reading of Sway: “I have an entirely new appreciation for both the complexity of the human brain and the rather shocking (and often-biased) way that people make decisions and judgements.” 
Also, in common with Kahneman, Sway teaches us even more about the power of the amygdala in the human brain. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that anyone who appeared as “other” would be considered an immediate threat and activate the fight or flight response in the amygdala. However, how do we deal with this reaction when most of our encounters are no longer life-threatening? Per Agarwal, “the key is to not fall back on it for decision-making, but rather to use it as a trigger for sparking analytical and logical thought.”
Applications For The Church
When pondering the implications of unconscious bias, I kept thinking about the Christian Church and how recognizing unconscious bias in terms of ‘us’ (believers) and ‘them’ (non-believers) may be getting in the way of our mission to share the Gospel. Here are three ways I see unconscious bias in myself and The Church getting in the way when it comes to loving non-believers.
Application #1: Responding to non-believers as “others” puts us on the defensive.
If our brain naturally wants to respond to “others” with the worst-case scenario in mind, it makes sense that Christians would naturally adopt a defensive attitude when communicating with non-believers. However, a posture of defensiveness is a sure way to stoke the unbeliever’s unconscious bias about Christians! Have you ever noticed yourself breathing a sigh of relief when you discover that a new acquaintance is a believer? Now that I reflect on it, I have. What might happen if we adopt a posture of curiosity, instead?
Application #2: Responding to non-believers as “others” minimizes our empathy.
Christians are called to love our neighbor—no qualification required. And yet that unconscious bias often shows itself in how we serve and empathize with non-believers. Is it easier for you to pray with believers? Is there a sense of “will they think I’m manipulating them?” if you offer help to a non-believer vs a believer? What if we thoughtfully pushed down that invisible wall and saw people as Jesus saw them?
Application #3: Responding to non-believers as “others” strokes our ego.
I’m in. You’re out. The evangelical tendency to focus on salvation over loving our neighbor has immense consequences when it comes to sharing Christ’s love. If we’re honest, do Christians tend to feel superior to non-believers—even in an unconscious way? How might that come across to those we are called to love and serve? What might happen if we reminded ourselves that we are ALL God’s precious children?
As Agarwal states, it is impossible for us to irradicate our unconscious bias. The most we can hope for is that our eyes are opened to our tendencies and that we begin to choose our actions more thoughtfully and wisely. In that respect, unconscious bias sounds a lot like sin, doesn’t it? We have to live with it on this side of heaven, but greater awareness can bring hope and healing. May it be so.
 Agarwal, Pragya. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020, 53.
 Agarwal, Sway, 42.