Book: The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets and Save Our Lives | Author: Shankar Vedantam
Sponsors: Gregory Fleming, Carla Harris, Bob Prince
Brief Author: Paul-Marc Schweitzer (email@example.com)
It is untrue to assume that your “conscious brain” is naturally fully active when making critical decisions.
In recent decades, extensive research has been done studying human beings’ subconscious abilities. Specialists from all disciplines have experimented and attempted to identify the specific features of our unconscious minds. Two forces are in action in people’s brains: conscious mental power and unconscious thinking. Society’s tendency for rationality has pushed people to believe that our subconscious operates only for tasks of low importance and constant repetition, which is partially true, as we rarely consciously breathe for instance. However, surprising events and related studies have pushed journalist Shankar Vedantam to wonder whether unconscious forces are also driving more significant behaviors.
In The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets and Save Lives, Vedantam draws on the work and insights of hundreds of experts in the field to explain everyday problems that cannot be solved in laboratories. He uses real life examples to demonstrate one major aspect of unconscious thinking: its tendency to instill unconscious bias in our minds. This concept can be observed when people’s actions are at odds with their intentions – they are influenced to act a certain way by forces they are unaware of. Vedantam brings to light a behavior that people hardly ever notice, which makes his piece of writing all the more remarkable.
Vedantam introduces the concept of the Hidden Brain, shorthand for a range of influences that manipulate people without their awareness and mold their personalities in conjunction with their “conscious” brains. The ideas in his book are organized in concentric circles, with early chapters relating stories about small and sometimes humorous aspects of the Hidden Brain, while later chapters tackle bigger issues. Overall, he presents a succession of anecdotes, showing the Hidden Brain at work, all with particular learning outcomes.
Unconscious biases, developed in the Hidden Brain, affect people’s personalities from the very first years of their lives by creating linkages and mental associations. They create feelings of comfort and discomfort, inspire racial stereotypes and sexism, influence table manners and judicial decisions, and even push people to act a certain way in dramatic events. People’s Hidden Brain has a major impact on interpersonal relationships; it creates close human connections that sometimes lead to extremism, allows politicians to manipulate voters’ emotions, or even influences young children’s opinion on race.
It is hardly conceivable that our entire society, which is based on the assumption that most people think consciously and rationally at all times, can be changed to reflect the impact of our Hidden Brain. However, recognizing its existence is a crucial step. The unconscious mind influences people in a very subtle and mundane way, making it difficult for human beings to even grasp the reality of its presence. Yet, unconscious biases are responsible for significant human behaviors affecting us sometimes positively, and other times negatively. Understanding the Hidden Brain will make us more successful, tolerant, and efficient; but most of all, it has the potential to make us better people.
Shankar Vedantam brings to light disturbing social behaviors where biases seem to be dictating our actions and beliefs. While the subconscious was introduced by renowned French psychologist Pierre Janet all the way back in 1889, it has remained a theoretical and abstract concept, and lacks tangible applications in real life. I was fascinated by the way Vedantam was able to link prejudice- driven behaviors to unconscious forces, rather than giving in to the common belief that biases are consciously formed and fully understood.
The author points out that history, society, education, and unique stories are the reason why our minds shape simplistic explanations for most of these behaviors. However, he fails to provide biological and physiological evidence to back up his argument. Also, while the stories he shares and the concerns he raises are fascinating, he only gives perfunctory attention and brief solutions to the underlying moral issues.
Vedantam hopes that we can bypass the unconscious mind and let reason guide our behaviors. While I agree with the learning opportunities lying in “making the unconscious conscious,” I find his view somewhat idealistic and hardly implementable. Rather, I believe in Freud’s psychoanalytic ideal of acknowledging hidden drives and channeling them productively.
About the Author
Shankar Vedantam is currently a science correspondent with the National Public Radio (NPR). He focuses on human behavior and social sciences, and how research in those fields can lead to unusual and interesting ways to think about the news. Previously, Vedantam worked ten years as a reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He has been recognized with numerous journalism honors throughout his career and served as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where he also worked as a lecturer. His non-fiction book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives was published in 2010.
CLASSIC BRIEF BY: Paul-Marc Schweitzer
Gregory Fleming, Morgan Stanley | Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley | Bob Prince, Bridgewater Associates
“Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious bias. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.”
In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam draws on the works of many successful and renowned experts in the study of subconscious thinking, ranging from psychologists and sociologists to medical specialists, such as neurologists. Throughout his book, he applies scientific data and research to everyday events triggering readers’ curiosity. Vedantam’s subject of interest digs into the underlying impact people’s unconscious minds have on their behaviors and focuses on a concept denoted as “unconscious bias.” Often, people’s actions are at odds with their intentions and the assumption that human behavior is the product of knowledge and conscious intentions is incomplete. Vedantam introduces the concept of the Hidden Brain, which remains a “deliberate decision to personify the hidden forces that influence us,” but does not aim to provide physiological justification. The Hidden Brain is responsible for people’s range of influences that manipulate their actions without their awareness. In a lot of ways, Vedantam’s views may seem provocative and hard to comprehend, simply because modern society relies on the assumption of human rationality; yet, the stories he relates are intriguing and challenge our thinking.
The Hidden Brain’s main task is to provide people with mental shortcuts or heuristics, which often is very beneficial to their lives. While reading these lines, your Hidden Brain is taking visual images of each word, translating symbols into recognizable letters, assembling them into words and sentences, and leading to a meaningful message; it does this all without your conscious attention. Scientists have long known about subconscious thinking and none of it seems disturbing at first glance; it allows for our continuous breathing, heart beating, and dreaming.
We assume that our conscious minds automatically turn on when we face decisions of greater importance, which is false. To illustrate this point, Vedantam narrates the story of a young woman from Massachusetts who suffered rape in the summer of 1986. While the tragic event was happening, she “swore to herself, I am not going to forget his face,” and made a point to memorize details about the man. Six months later, the police provided her with a set of photos of suspects they had identified. She cautiously examined them and requested to hear the suspect’s voice. She told the police she was one hundred percent sure he was the rapist. The convicted man appealed the judicial decision, but was still sentenced to life imprisonment, and the victim went on with her life with an uneasy feeling. Fourteen years later, the lady received a letter explaining that new evidence had come to light in her raping case; her anxious feeling came back and she started doubting her initial judgment. She accepted to meet the initially convicted man, and all of her worries came to reality in a glimpse of an eye. Since childhood, she was accustomed to noticing teeth, and unlike the actual rapist, she realized the man had noticeable crooked teeth. She had totally missed this detail and mistakenly sent an innocent man to prison.
One reason unconscious biases are so hard to spot is that they are often mundane. While her Hidden Brain was prompting the rape victim to spot the unusual, the one element that could have prevented the rape victim from her mistake was too ordinary to mention. She was accustomed to noticing teeth characteristics and had developed an unconscious bias towards this ordinary feature. When terrific events happen, our “rational” side is looking for explanations equally as dramatic, even though the answer is often dull. How can someone like Hitler, who seemed to have grown up like an ordinary person, lead to such atrocities as the Holocausts? His moral compass must have become misaligned and he must have suffered from mental sickness. But what if his behavior was driven by unconscious forces, which originated in his Hidden Brain, for years and years, pushing him to act without full awareness of the consequences; this consideration is a plausible, yet provoking thought.
The Ubiquitous Shadow
Whether good or bad, the Hidden Brain always acts in a discrete and modest way, anticipating people’s needs but never claiming credit for it. It is operating at every moment, helping us choose a tie, make our coffee, or decide which car to purchase. The Hidden Brain works best for tasks that are ordinary, repetitive, or based on heuristics; but when it applies the wrong association, the consequences can be damaging.
An experiment, designed in Newcastle, England, evaluated people’s honesty in purchasing beverages and highlighted interesting features of the Hidden Brain. A sheet of paper, easily visible, was placed above a beverage dispenser to remind people to pay for their drinks. The system was based on honor; there were no checks in place to make sure people actually paid. Above the written reminder, experimenters displayed a picture that was changed weekly, showing flowers on even weeks and a pair of watching eyes on odd weeks. Analysis showed that money collected on odd weeks was three times as much as during even weeks. Quizzed participants confirmed that they had not noticed the photo was different from one week to another. What does this experiment tell us? People are influenced by elements they never consciously record. Week after week, people’s Hidden Brains remained vigilant to their peripheral visions, unconsciously registering and rapidly analyzing the change in picture. The watching eyes automatically prompted them to be more honest and pay for their drinks.
A different experiment, performed simultaneously by psychologists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, confirmed our Hidden Brain’s powerful, influential authority. The two researchers studied the impact a difference in company names can have on the price of their stocks. They came up with hard-to-pronounce firms such as “Aegeadus and Xagibdan,” and easier ones like “Jillman and Clearman.” The experiment found that people, “tended to [unconsciously] overvalue companies with easy names and undervalue companies with difficult names,” by more than thirty percent over a single year. Alter and Oppenheimer even looked at the ticker symbols of companies listed on the NYSE and American Stock Exchange, and discovered the same pattern. However, it seems the “pronounceability effect went away with time,” proving that once investors started learning more about the companies, their initial biases disappeared. While these professionals obviously thought they were making deliberate, rational choices, this study proves that their Hidden Brains mistakenly instilled a sense of comfort and assurance in their decisions.
The Hidden Brain has a powerful impact on interpersonal relationships. Have you ever felt jealousy in one of your close friends’ success? Have you ever wished you were the one deserving the honors and accolades? Whether we admit it or not, most of us have experienced these emotions at some point of our existence. Social psychologist Abraham Tesser found that people usually enjoy others’ accomplishments when they are strangers. When couples or close friends do well in non-interacting activities, the same outcome is observed. However, a concern appears “when someone whom we are close to excels in a domain where we would like to be seen as excellent ourselves.” The artist who is outshone by his girlfriend, or the athlete who is outperformed by his best friend, feels a conflict.
John Trojanowski and Virginia Lee are co-directors of research on neurodegenerative disorders at the University of Pennsylvania; both are smart, ambitious, competitive, and successful in the same field and out of the same office. John and Virginia are married to each other, and according to Tesser’s research, one would assume their relationship suffers from this particular environment; but the reality is different. They have a secret that, “can be summed up in a single word: complementarity.” They have challenged the selfishness of their unconscious minds to their mutual advantage. With regards to their relationship, they have “unconsciously adopted roles that allow them to see each other as collaborators instead of competitors.” Rather than giving in to unconscious forces designed to benefit narrow selfish interests, they felt a potential threat and used their strong relationship to bring out complimentary domains. This story proves that our Hidden Brain’s unconscious bias can be harnessed to create strong and efficient interpersonal relationships.
Tracking the Hidden Brain
“Our Hidden Brain is like the wetness of water that the fish never notices – but can’t live without.”
Basic elements of our everyday lives, such as morality, love, and manners rely heavily on the Hidden Brain. Some unusual mental disorders highlight the reality of our unconscious mind, not always by its presence, but sometimes by its absence. The author narrates the story of Canadians Brian and Wendy McNamara, a happily married couple for thirty years. In 2004, their relationship started to suffer when Wendy was diagnosed with a mental disorder known as frontotemporal dementia, which affects outgrowths of the brain responsible for major unconscious thinking. In particular, this area shapes “our ability to judge social situations and make aesthetic judgments,” but does not impact our analytical powers. Consequently, the disorder caused Wendy to lack socially appropriate behavior, especially when it came to table manners, as her Hidden Brain was not functioning properly.
Social etiquette and human interaction rules are hardly ever written down as a set of laws; for instance, “There is no rule book [dictating] when it is appropriate to knock on someone’s door and suggest a drink.” Thanks to our Hidden Brain, we are unconsciously able to understand and apply social rules, constantly adjusting to the given situation. While education can sometimes be credited, most of our social behavior is learned from a succession of experiences we unconsciously encountered in the past. Did someone explicitly teach us that it is inappropriate to eat the last slice of cheese on the plate or reach across a crowded dinner table for salt? We just happen to follow most of these ‘rules’ without realizing that we know them.
Frontotemporal dementia experts, devoted to assist patients like Wendy, have performed studies confirming these observations. They found that the “most important aspect of being a law-abiding citizen is [not conscious morality, but rather our] ability to understand social rules.” It is not the laws in the world that prevent us from shoplifting, but rather our fear of being caught and having to shamefully deal with our misbehavior. Most often, people suffering from frontotemporal dementia know that they are breaking the law, but show no remorse, which proves that we can claim little credit for our conscious notion of morality. Our system of law mistakenly assumes that conscious rationality prevails in human actions; yet, people like Wendy are totally unaware and irresponsive to the dysfunction in their Hidden Brains that drives inappropriate behavior.
According to Joshua Greene, Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, “ancient rules developed in the course of evolution,” are responsible for people’s understanding of ethics and morality, trumping the idea that “holy books and human laws” dictate social behaviors. One can wonder whether this new understanding of morality affects our responsibilities for immoral actions. Vedantam supports the stance that we should be accountable for both our conscious and unconscious mind, but need to actively seek the help of the Hidden Brain to reach a moral society.
The story of Wendy McNamara shows us that the unconscious bias we develop in our Hidden Brains is not always detrimental. In the case of social behaviors and human interactions, unconscious thinking helps us “navigate the world [and] creates the foundation for our lives as social creatures,” while its absence results in severe misbehaviors.
Cycle of Bias
Our Hidden Brain features the ability to recognize faces over other objects and is designed to be biased towards particular ones. A particular area in the brain, called the fusiform face area, has been scientifically proven to specialize in distinguishing human faces, triggering unconscious biases that affect us greatly. For instance, we tend to falsely associate certain animals that have been personified with pleasing attributes. Interestingly, the little mice in Disney’s legendary Cinderella movie or the fluffy hero starring the Kung Fu Panda trilogy both activate endearing thoughts in most people’s minds. How can we rationally explain such unconditional love for some of these creatures? We all know that real mice often carry diseases and that pandas can be very dangerous, yet it appears that our brain develops affinities for faces and unconsciously biases our feelings.
Research has proven that we tend to recognize people who belong to the same ethnic group better than others. A Chinese person has no issue distinguishing people among his/her peers, but will find it difficult to distinguish a white Texan from the other. In 2006, African American Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney became furious at a Capitol Hill police officer who failed to recognize her, and the story went nationwide on the accusation ground of racism and prejudice from law enforcers. However, when thinking about it in terms of the Hidden Brain, we are forced to consider alternative justifications. “Identifying congressional representatives who belong to a less familiar group – African American women – can take a second longer because the mental processing has to be carried out by the conscious brain.” It is a very reasonable hypothesis to assume that the police officer did not mean Ms. McKinney any disrespect, but rather struggled to recognize her due to unconscious biases embedded in his mind. Unfortunately, our society is defaulted to consider that the Hidden Brain does not exist, deliberately accusing the cop of racism because it lacks a better “rational” explanation. However, data proves that unconscious and unintentional biases often account for eyewitness errors, and “Ignoring the role of race, rather than taking it into account, is what produces outcomes that are racist.”
Frances Aboud, a successful Canadian psychologist, has discovered intriguing features in toddlers’ social perceptions and judgments. Children provide us with a useful window into the development of our unconscious minds because they are able to rapidly form associations, which is how the Hidden Brain’s abilities expand. She found that, on average, young children assign more positive adjectives to pictures of white faces and more negative ones with black faces. This observation held true whether the child was white or black. How can we explain that, at such a young age, these children already displayed unconscious biases? Unexpectedly, Aboud found no correlation between the views and opinions of their parents or teachers, and the behaviors observed from the toddlers.
So where did these ideas come from?
Aboud’s research prompted Vedantam to think of these children’s racial bias as triggered by two independent systems of learning in our brain, not by a “steady diet of hostile messages or indoctrination by bigoted parents.” On the one hand, society seems to focus its efforts to support the idea that conscious mind is all that matters. Our educational and judicial systems are designed to operate and respond in a rational way, appealing to our conscious perceptions. On the other hand, we tend to ignore that our brains also uses linkage, assimilation, and deductions to feed our unconscious minds and to slowly develop biases we are unaware of. A three-year old, white child does not think of a black person as bad, which would be a conscious reflection, but more as different, which subconsciously prompts distrust. “Separate from what the children were learning consciously […], they were unconsciously learning something else altogether,” without anyone else influencing their thinking.
As these young children mature over time and become “thoughtful” teenagers in a respectful society, our rational minds would assume that all their racial prejudices would disappear, which is not necessarily the case. Aboud studied interracial friendships between middle school children in America and examined the proportion of same-race and different-race friends. Whereas the toddlers she had previously studied had an even proportion of same-race and different-race friends, “the oldest children in her group had one and a half times as many same-race friends as different-race friends.” Even though these teenagers were surrounded by peaceful, anti-racism messages from their familial, educational, and media environments, they still cultivated racial biases and unconsciously formed same-race friendships. Their Hidden Brains had slowly and subtly influenced them over the years.
Aboud believes that, in a way, “some part of our brain is still stuck where we were at four and five and eight, and it is always there.” In other words, the Hidden Brain grows through an accumulation of experiences, blind repetitions and unconscious associations, and develops biases from the very first years of our lives. These preconceived ideas will shape our personality and affect the way in which we treat others. While this behavior is hardly ever noticeable, it is coming to light when we are unable to control our Hidden Brains, as toddlers, distracted adults, or elders.
Gender Bias and the Hidden Brain
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, signed into law by President Barack Obama, provides victims of pay discrimination the opportunity for fair hearings. As one may think the existence of sexism in the professional world has reduced, lots still has to be said about stereotypes that are unconsciously implanted in people’s minds. Lilly Ledbetter’s story symbolizes the hardships women endure in the work place and the effect of unconscious sexism in their careers. In 1998, after realizing she was underpaid compared to her male counterparts, she decided to sue her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. As the case reached the Supreme Court, Lilly’s complaint was dismissed “on the grounds that the discrimination […] had taken place a long time” prior to her filing. There are no doubts that Lilly was a victim of sexist discrimination, but as with many cases of prejudice in real life, it is hard to prove and technicalities, such as elapsed time, prevent fair judgment.
From a scientific standpoint, unconscious bias is easier to demonstrate than in real life, and some fascinating experiments have revealed irrefutable effects of our Hidden Brains. Women leaders are often perceived as tough, ruthless, or even manipulative individuals, having lost their “feminine” side to adapt to the tough nature of business or politics. Madeline Heilman of New York University performed the following experiment: she told volunteers about a “tough, yet outgoing and personable [human being,] known to reward individual contributions and [work] hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” The only difference is that half of the volunteers were told the person’s name was “Andrea” and the other half heard about a leader named “James.” As participants were asked to rate how likeable they found that person, a striking three quarters of them found James more pleasant than Andrea, who was found less likeable merely because she was a woman in a leadership position.
The belief that today’s world is free of prejudice, whether it is racial bias or sexism, is simply false, but much of these thoughts come from unconscious forces, and are therefore, very hard to demonstrate. Each situation of discrimination is different and victims are often facing conscious bias in the form of stereotypes and preconceived ideas, which is what our social system is designed to fight against. However, we are currently unable to respond to unconscious biases that drive our decisions and dictate our behaviors, not only due to their “subconscious” nature, but also because of their subtle influence.
How do we find real life evidence that sexism remains a real issue in our society? Wouldn’t it be remarkably instructive if men could experience professional life as women do, and vice versa? If differences in treatment were to be observed, we would be certain sexism was “at work.” Scientific progress has allowed hope in finding an answer, and this optimism lies in transgendered people. Between 2003 and 2005, sociologist Kristen Schilt followed the transition from woman to man of twenty-nine individuals in Southern California. Overwhelmingly, the transmen attested to better treatment than they had experienced as women. Post transition, some related how colleagues facilitated their jobs or how management gave more thought to their ideas. “A Latino attorney told Shilt that an attorney at another law firm had complimented his boss for firing an incompetent woman and hiring a new lawyer who was ‘just delightful.’ The attorney […] did not know that the incompetent woman and the delightful new lawyer were the same person,” with the same educational background, professional expertise, and life experience.
When we benefit from undercurrents, we are invariably unconscious of them and usually credit ourselves through our talents and skills. Our Hidden Brain is an expert at providing rational explanations for the outcomes we observe – a promotion or salary raise must be coming because of outstanding performances and achievements. The reality is different, but few of us will actually experience the undercurrent of sexism; after all, if you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current? Transgender people are living proof that “changing direction” will make you feel the current of unconscious biases.
The Lure of Conformity
The Hidden Brain has a dramatic impact on our decisions in the face of disaster and terrorism. In both cases, the desire and pressure to conform to the norm imposed by our surroundings represent an unconscious force that can prove beneficial or detrimental.
Some of the events that occurred during the tragic attacks of the World Trade Center in September 2001 lay the basis for understanding mass decisions in the face of disasters. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a renowned invested firm, was spread over the eighty-eighth and the eighty-ninth floor of the South tower, which was directly affected by the impact of the second, hijacked plane. However, nearly every employee on the eighty-eighth floor survived, while almost all of the eighty- ninth’s floor employees died in the tragedy. Could there have been an independent decision from each person on the lower floor to evacuate the building? It is highly unlikely, as we would have seen the same proportion of survivors on the floor above. Understanding mass decisions by studying individual behavior is “like photographing a panoramic scene with a zoom lens, the details keep us from seeing the larger picture.” Even though people on both floors felt that they were making autonomous decisions, individuals evacuated the eighty-eighth floor because everyone else was, and the opposite reasoning stands for the floor above. Interestingly, the size of the group seemed to have an even greater impact, as researchers found that floors with less people evacuated the building quicker than more-occupied ones – the larger the group, the longer it takes to reach a consensus.
The belief that people are rational, conscious, and autonomous thinkers is greatly refuted in cases of disasters such as 9/11. Emergency planning assumes that people will think independently and flow evenly through available exits However, the opposite is usually observed, as “the desire to arrive at a shared understanding of what is happening is an extremely powerful drive of the Hidden Brain,” providing us with comfort and reassurance. The Hidden Brain instills a feeling of self- consciousness when we do something that few other are doing, diminishing our authority and triggering our anxiety. Nevertheless, this new understanding of the Hidden Brain could have a tremendous impact on the way we prepare for disasters. Many lives could potentially be saved if people were “warned about their tendency to abdicate decision-making to groups,” and proactively taught about the adverse effect of unconscious behaviors.
On the other side of these tragedies, suicide bombers made the unforgiveable commitment to give their lives in the pursuit of an ideal pushed to extremism. Are terrorists simply crazy people, affected by lethal mental disorders? The answer is no, and the explanation is similar to the one given above – the temptation to conform is a dominating unconscious force. In this case, however, it is small group dynamics that overturn people’s beliefs about what is and isn’t rational behavior. Religion or marketing campaigns have little to do in the decision these young people make to become terrorists. Rather, the belonging to a “small group where others had decided to become suicide terrorists” is the best predictor. Friends who had grown up together, dreamed together, lived together, are more likely to become “one another’s universe” and commit to something dramatic.
The central insight of this research on terrorism is that the Hidden Brain has the tendency to seek approval and meaning from people closely related to us. What is common to the worlds of military professionals, business executives, missionary orders, and terrorist organizations is the “ability of small groups to confer such approval and meaning.” Consciously, these people may think of themselves as patriots, capitalists, religious servants, and idealists; but at an unconscious level, they simply thrive being a part of something greater than themselves; a special endeavor that makes the group’s “survival and well-being more important than their own lives.”
Shades of Justice
It is commonly believed that biased outcomes result from deliberate bias and that our current criminal justice system, where various actors keep each other honest, is free from most mistakes. However, this view is based on the false assumption that human behavior is the product of conscious intentions. Research into the Hidden Brain has provided surprising information about disparities in judicial procedures, especially when race is involved.
In 2006, researchers from Stanford University studied differences in crime sentences, attempting to understand why some violent offenses result in the death penalty while others result in life imprisonment. Unlike previous studies, which considered skin color as a major factor, their results went a step further. They focused their analysis on black criminals and found that “Defendants who looked more stereotypically black than average were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty as those who looked less black.” Interestingly, this observed bias involved only white victims, and excluded cases in which the criminal and the victim were of the same race.
Victims of so-called racial bias are often affected from the very moment they are arrested. In many criminal cases, researchers have found that law enforcers are unconsciously influenced by initial factors throughout the trial process, such as names or clothing styles. The Hidden Brain exercises its subtle, and sometimes vicious, powers by grouping these factors together to rationalize people’s decisions, often leading to mistakes. The difficulty with the unconscious mind, by definition, lies in people’s lack of awareness of their tendency to be influenced. While some juries might have been consciously biased, it is highly unlikely that most of them are. A better explanation lies in the assumption that most judges are convinced they are making the right decisions. “We believe that juries that want to be fair are fair” and that good intentions result in fair outcomes. What is there to do? “Re-imagining our system of justice based on the new understanding of the brain […] is a daunting undertaking,” and it is likely that racial bias will continue to create judicial errors in the future.
Politics and the Hidden Brain
Psychologist Anthony Greenwald designed a test for unconscious bias that challenged the way people think about reasoning. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) allowed him to analyze biases people develop about race and gender. Racial bias can take the form of people’s tendency to associate white people with more positive concepts than black people. In one set of tests done in
2008, Greenwald determined people unconsciously associated British Prime Minister Tony Blair with being more American than Barack Obama. People obviously knew of Obama’s citizenship, but their Hidden Brains manipulated them into thinking they disliked him because he felt different to them Once their subconscious “whispered to these voters that Obama was different, they quickly came up with plausible ways to explain to themselves why they didn’t like the candidate.”
Ever since Barack Obama’s run for presidency in 2008, psychologists and sociologists started raising questions about people’s race bias and its impact on voting. Using the IAT, they came up with a map of the United States showing patterns of bias. As one could expect, results found a noticeable association between race bias and political views – high bias regions usually voted for Republicans for instance. But what does racial bias tell us that racial makeup of a region does not already? Interestingly, when a region or district is composed of either a few or a lot of minorities, racial bias does not have a particular impact on political views. In both cases, the tendency of white people to vote Republican and black people to vote for Democrats seem to take over the unconscious bias. This tendency is a bias in itself, but it is not unconscious. On the other hand, racial bias seems to impact voting patterns in areas where the minority population is “sizable enough.”
Studies concluded that racial bias triggers people’s views on many other subjects, such as economics and health care. When talking to people about welfare, Princeton’s Martin Gilens found that they were “much more likely to automatically visualize a black person than a white person.” Political strategies have greatly benefited from this feature of the unconscious mind. Politicians just have to “talk about crime in general and [people’s] Hidden Brains will supply a picture of a violent black man.” People’s subconscious works by associations and correlations, biasing us into linking two unusual events taking place simultaneously, even when they have nothing to do with each other. As we have seen, much of the Hidden Brain’s power lies in the fact that “its influence is subtle and mundane,” which creates difficulties in fighting it. Without explicitly discussing racial matters, people still think differently about political issues because of racial bias.
Is fighting people’s unconscious minds the solution to more fair elections? Barack Obama’s campaign organization designed some elaborate tools to fight racial bias during the 2008 Presidential Election. As expected, most of them did not explicitly use race, but rather suggested “an alternative route to channel [voters] feelings.” Unlike Martin Luther King’s way of “righteous indignation,” Obama’s success in the election can be attributed to his relentless effort to not focus on changing people’s underlying views about race and gender. The ultimate goal of being elected was achieved without explicitly combating racial bias. Nevertheless, Obama’s election provided him with a platform to fight racial stereotypes over his tenure, and as we learned that the HiddenBrain learns through blind repetitions, an unconscious change may very well be ongoing in people’s minds.
The Telescope Effect
The Hidden Brain also influences the way we interpret numbers, especially very small and very large numbers. By doing so, unconscious factors manipulate our perception of risk and moral judgment, and affect policies touching the lives of millions.
Our minds are challenged in evaluating the relative size of small numbers, which impacts the way we perceive risk. For example, it is hard to distinguish between something that has a one in a thousand chance of occurrence, and one that has a one in two thousand chance of occurrence. Additionally, the Hidden Brain tricks us into fearing violent and external risks more than threats coming from ourselves. This is why people feel safer speeding down the highway at eighty miles per hour than they do sitting in an airplane.
As surprising as it feels, the risk for suicide in the United States is twice as large as the risk for homicide. Statistics show that police officers are four times more likely to commit suicide than professionals in related fields, such as firefighters or military people. Why is that so? Simply put, police officers carry guns constantly, whether they are on call or not. “Guns don’t make people suicidal, but they provide the impulse of suicide with a vector,” and there is irrefutable evidence that the proximity with weapons increases the risk for suicide. The debate over the legal ownership of fire weapons has been going on for decades in the United States, and both sides hold valid arguments. Yet, when it comes to the Hidden Brain, the truth relies in the distinction between control and safety. We feel more control by owning a gun, but is it really safer? We tend to develop an unconscious bias in believing that more threats arise from the outside environment, when they actually come from ourselves most of the time. The risk of domestic violence, car accidents, or suicide feels remote compared to the risk of homicide or terrorist attacks, but in reality it is not. Both risks are rare, and our inability to differentiate small numbers, along with our fear of new uncontrolled terrifying threats, allows our Hidden Brain to bias our thinking.
Human beings are not good with large numbers either. Vedantam uses some of the most tragic events in history to prove his point: genocides and mass suffering. How can we explain people’s passiveness in the face of the Holocaust during WWII or the Rwandan genocide in 1994? On the other hand, we saw charitable minds from around the world coming together to save a little dog named Hokget from the Insiko - a burned-out tanker off the coast of Hawaii in 2002.
An experiment performed by psychologist Paul Slovic showed that people with identical funds were willing to give more money to save the same amount of lives in a smaller group of people. Slovic said, “If empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, think of putting yourself in two people’s shoes. [Our brain] does not work. It falls apart.” Similarly, philosopher Peter Singer devised an interesting dilemma, asking people whether they would save a drowning child even though they would ruin a two hundred dollar pair of shoes. Of course, the answer is yes. However, when millions of children need help, how can we explain that many are reticent to write a check of the same amount to a charity to save a single one? In this situation, our Hidden Brain makes the individual seem less significant because it has difficulties wrapping its mind around large numbers. We are capable of feeling personal responsibility for one child, but one of millions feels different.
According to the author, the Hidden Brain shapes our compassion in the form of a telescope, making our ability to respond optimal when focused on a single person only. The Telescope Effect is a strong internal force that unconsciously biases us into caring more about one life than a hundred. Our minds are not “calibrated to deal with the difference between a single death and a million deaths,” which explains people’s relative inaction during mass sufferings and genocides. While the Telescope Effect in our moral judgment is part of nature and cannot be avoided, its understanding can help guide our actions through reason rather than instinct.
One may wonder why making the unconscious conscious seems like such a daunting task. The difficulty is that unconscious biases lie within ourselves and have developed over our entire existence, sometimes even over full generations. Yet, putting reason ahead of instinct and valuing conscious intentions over intuitions is what sets us apart from other species. Vedantam’s ideas may sound provoking to many and are not easy to digest for our conscious selves. For all the ways his book has “shown how rational mind is unequal to the machinations of the Hidden Brain,” it also argues “reason is our only bulwark against bias.” Once we acknowledge the reality of unconscious biases coming from our Hidden Brain, it is necessary to remember that there are no ways to eradicate its manipulation completely, and that “reason is our voice of conscience.”