The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives Hardcover – 19 Jan 2010
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"In The Hidden Brain, one of America's best science journalists describes how our unconscious minds influence everything from criminal trials to charitable giving, from suicide bombers to presidential elections. The Hidden Brain is a smart and engaging exploration of the science behind the headlines" "and of the little man behind the screen. Don't miss it." Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on "Happiness
"Shankar Vedantam brings his critical eye to a question that has haunted scientists and writers for centuries: Does the unconscious matter, and if so, how? With a light touch, the book takes us through the complicated landscape of research on psychology and human behavior. We come away not only understanding how we act, but Vedantam moves past mainstream economic reasoning to shed light on the relationships we create with each other. The book addresses the madness and beauty of our struggles to create a moral and just world."" "Sudhir Venkatesh, author of" Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to theStreets
"From the Hardcover edition."" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Shankar Vedantam is a national correspondent and columnist for the "Washington Post "and a 2009 Neimann Fellow. He lives in Washington, DC.
"From the Hardcover edition."" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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I thought this was called "The Subconscious," but that's not the same thing, insofar as we all have our personal subconscious. The Hidden Brain is the unconscious way we all think (or just about all of us), and it's a chilling reminder that what we think is free choice actually isn't.
Vedantam draws on recent psychological research to show some disturbing facts. He spends a whole chapter on investigating racial bias among people who never showed it. He comes to the conclusion that not only are these people biased in spite of their belief that they're not, but we are all biased, and this comes from infancy. People act unbiased against their unconscious beliefs, even in one case, a minority person whose job was to teach other people to be unbiased.
The way the hidden brain does this is so subtle that we're fooled into thinking that it's normal, conscious thinking. How else would the teacher of racial harmony find herself associating bad things with minority names? The inference is that we'll all do this. If you deny this, try the tests at "Project Implicit" at the Harvard University web site.
Another chapter is devoted to gender bias. It is sad to hear the stories of two professors at Stanford University talk about their professional life since a sex change. The woman who changed to a man says, "I am taken more seriously." He was called a better worker than his "sister" (the same person). The man who changed to a woman is now in the bottom ten percent of salaries and male colleagues shout at him at conferences when they don't agree with his point of view.
Vedantam has a chapter on why some people saved themselves on 9/11, while others stayed at their desks and died. He also has a chapter on a suicide bomber who didn't, in fact, manage to kill himself. To some degree he answers the question of "Why are suicide bombers usually well-educated and have no suicidal tendencies?"
And finally, Vedantam talks of how politicians exploit the hidden brain to get an unfair advantage at elections. You'll be surprised about what he reveals, and how to fight a barely-disguised racial slur with a rebuttal that neutralized the accusation.
All in all, a good book, well-written, and an eye opener. Definitely worth your time.
Economists used to say that we are generally rational actors, while psychology used to say that we are primarily motivated by hidden subconscious mechanisms. According to this and other books, the truth is about 50/50. In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam focuses his journalistic microscope on the unconscious things running through our minds that often help influence - sometimes dictate - our behavior. He terms these hidden biases "the hidden brain" and argues that even those decisions we make that we "feel" are made rationally and without bias are often not that way at all. Did you know, for instance, that studies have shown that beginning investors are much more likely to invest in companies whose names are readily pronouncable (I'd conjecture this is the same for buyers of wine). What about the idea that many studies tell us that we are much more prone to conformity - doing what others are doing - than we often want to admit? That's the hidden brain at work.
Unlike some books in this how-the-mind-plays-tricks-on-us genre, Vedantam does not shy away from some very serious issues. One of the most sensitive areas where the hidden brain seems alive and well is in the area of discrimination. Using some interesting studies involving elementary schoolers, Vedantam argues that young children (and adults) are prone to make positive judgments about people who look like them and negative judgments about people who don't (the studies' author tested this in a few ways, including showing children pictures of people with different skin colors, asking them to assign good or bad adjectives to the pictures). Vedantam argues, of course, that adults learn to overcome this with their conscious thoughts, but makes an interesting argument that undoing the unconscious urge to notice and judge based on appearance is as impossible as trying to forget a fact you already know.
Vedantam also explores, using another study, the charged issue of what makes terrorists become terrorists (he suggests that it is not religious fundamentalism but vulnerability to group pressures). There is also a chapter devoted to sociological studies showing how susceptible we are to conformity; when a group around us is doing something - even something we would not normally do otherwise - we often do it. Vedantam not only points out that this is so, but shows us the often devastating consequences of this fact: bystanders might not step in to stop a crime in progress if no one else is, etc.
There is a major criticism I have of this book. There are several points wher I feel that the author develops a sort of myopia - settling on one explanation of an observed behavior when others are possible. The most infuriating, to me, was during the author's explanation of our tendency to conform. When exploring the idea that bystanders often do not step in to stop a crime in progress unless others step in, the author really should have brought in some paragraphs using game theory as a possible explainer: bystanders may be reticent to step in becaus they cannot count on the fact that anyone else will, increasing the risk of threat to their own safety. Instead, the author explains this idea solely as something of an instinct to do what others are doing. Similarly, the author points to a trangendered (male to female) professor's difference in treatment upon becoming a female as evidence of gender discrimination. The fact that the professor's research (as a male) was quite a controversial chlallenging of a tenet of evolutionary theory was not brought up as a possible element of the different treatment. While I am not saying that the ideas not brought up by our author ARE the correct explainers of these events, it is a shame that the author did not bring them up as possibilities which demonstrates, to me, a certain degree of myopia.
These flaws in mind, I can give the book three stars. It is every bit as well written and interesting as the books mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Those who have not read books in behavioral science should check this one out. Because of its flaws, though, they might also want to check out some others also.
However, arguably, this author's research goes a bit further than Freud, as he attempts to combine science with actual human laboratory experiments, and backs them up with convincing anecdotal examples, which together allow him to argue (often convincingly) that the latest "split view" of the brain results from more utilitarian and tactical concerns of brain functioning and brain architecture itself than due to some theory hatched by "Ivy Tower" theorists of psychology.
His crowning point is the suggestion that the mind is made up mostly of memory cells whose groves are imprinted more deeply by the quantity or number of repetitive and routine impressions or experiences made on it -- or that it engages in, or, are acquired through multiple channels of perception. Thus it is altogether understandable that it would not necessarily be the immediacy of impending decisions (whether they be morally normative or not) that would have the greatest impact on memory and thus on the brain as a whole, but the sheer quantity of repetitive experiences.
Put simply, the brain like most everything else in nature is a slave to repetition. It too seeks the path of least resistance: ways of saving ground (and thus time) whenever possible. Why waste time reinventing the wheel when there is a track of thought already laid-down and preserved in the subconscious mind? The more the repetition, the more the experience is imprinted in memory, and the more it is stored and retained below the zone of consciousness. And more importantly, the more it becomes available for automatic recall. Subconscious memory, thus is at all times on auto-dial to consciousness. Put another way, the memory tracks woven most deeply into the groves our brains are those made by repetition, the imprints of information received through multiple channels of perception, and not just from a few normative or corrective admonitions made in the foreground of consciousness, at the moment.
The best example (among many really good ones given by the author) of how this phenomenon works is the one involving race prejudice: It is one thing for well-meaning parents to occasionally teach their kids that racial prejudice is morally wrong, but quite another for them to be virtually bombarded each day by images, symbols, and messages that all say the opposite: that Blacks are inferior.
Which modality is likely to have the greater impact on the child's brain? The answer is (excuse the pun), a "no brainer."
No matter what the moral norms are, or who may promulgate them, the overwhelming evidence made on the tracks of the brain says that Blacks are inferior, and that is the message that the subconscious brain retains. It is this message that is always on auto dial to the conscious brain. The same goes for other forms of prejudices. But more than this, kids who are inevitably caught up in the cognitive dissonance trap between the two conflicting messages, will conveniently draw upon available cultural rationalizations and defensive strategies to cover the discrepancy, moral norms bedamned.
A well-written and an enlightening read. Four stars
Here are a few of the thorny questions that he raises: Why do some people decide to become suicide bombers? Why did almost all of the employees on the eighty-eighth floor of the South Tower run out of the World Trade Center on 9/11, while many workers on the eighty-ninth floor stayed behind and perished? When a woman was savagely beaten by her irate boyfriend on a crowded bridge, why did no one come to her aid--not even to call the police on a cell phone? Why do seemingly ordinary individuals fall under the spell of cult leaders? How do racism and sexism originate and why are they so difficult to eradicate? The author blames "the hidden brain," which is "shorthand for a range of influences that manipulate us." Through storytelling, Vedantam illustrates ways in which "unconscious bias" can affect us "in moments of great vulnerability." We employ "heuristics," "mental shortcuts...to carry out the mundane chores of life." Unfortunately, we also tend to apply mental shortcuts when it would be far better to think things through rationally and with greater attention to detail. The hidden brain jumps to conclusions, judging people and events by their appearances and relying on gut feelings rather than reason. No wonder we, as individuals and as a society, get ourselves into so much trouble.
Although "The Hidden Brain" is thought-provoking and entertaining, some readers may be put off by the idea that human beings are not in control of their actions. If the author is correct in his assertions, then people who commit immoral acts are not necessarily evil. They may be prey to forces outside of their conscious control. This is a revolutionary and politically incorrect concept, for if the hidden brain is so powerful, then no one is guilty of anything. "My hidden brain made me do it," the defendant can claim at his murder trial. This would have been a more beneficial book if Vedantam had offered specific suggestions for channeling our emotions and harnessing our hidden brains constructively. After all, if any miscreant can get away with offering endless excuses for his or her mistakes, then who will be responsible for making our world a more peaceful and livable place?
The basic idea with all of these books is that our minds have conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious mind is rational, analytic, slow, deliberate, evolutionarily more recent, and is the part we most closely associate with our identity. By contrast, the unconscious mind takes heuristic shortcuts (leaps to conclusions), is multitasking and quick, is evolutionarily more primitive, and is inaccessible to introspection, so we're not usually aware of its activity (hence the term "hidden brain").
The heuristics employed by the hidden brain are essential and usually useful, including keeping our behavior in line with moral and legal norms, but they can also cause various inappropriate biases which can lead to serious errors of judgment in all domains of life, both individual and social. These biases can sometimes be detected by paying close attention to our patterns of behavior, and also when people are under great pressure, are highly emotional, or otherwise have diminished control of their rational faculties (eg, old age). If these biases are brought to our conscious attention, we tend to deny or rationalize them rather than accept their existence.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Freud put the unconscious firmly on the map a century ago, and many psychodynamic theorists built on his work throughout the 20th century. What's new during the past few decades is that, rather than relying mainly on anecdotal experiences and creative theorizing, psychologists have been applying statistically-based research methods to large samples of people in order to more precisely and reliably discern what the hidden brain is doing. In fact, I suspect that we would do well to go back and revisit Freud's ideas, testing them as hypotheses using these newer empirical research methods. Meanwhile, here are some of the interesting findings attributed to the hidden brain which are described in this book:
* Waitresses who mimic the language and behavior of customers create an affinity which generates substantially larger tips.
* When people we're close to excel in activities that we would like excel in, we tend to become jealous. When they excel in other activities, we tend to be happy for them. For example, when a father and son are in the same field and the son achieves more than the father, the father tends to be emotionally distant. Generally, people tend to need their own turf, with complementary rather than overlapping roles being preferable in close relationships.
* We preferentially recognize faces over other objects, infants develop preference for their mother's faces over those of strangers within a matter of hours, and we naturally become more adept at distinguishing faces within ethnic groups we're more familiar with (ever heard someone say all blacks, Chinese, etc. look the same?).
* As a result of our various social experiences, racial biases and other prejudices (eg, regarding roles and abilities of men and women) begin to become programmed into our hidden brains when we're toddlers and tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives, even if we consciously oppose them. For example, even black Americans tend to be racially biased against black Americans! Hence the importance of diversity, prominent display of positive role models in all groups, etc.
* People in favorable circumstances tend to credit themselves for their success, whereas people in adverse circumstances tend to blame themselves for their failures. In other words, we tend to attribute too much of our success or failure to ourselves rather than our circumstances.
* When people are faced with disasters or other crises, they tend to follow the group rather than relying on their own judgment (think of stampedes), even when an outsider would clearly see that the group is wrong.
* Terrorist groups tend to be rather exclusive, so membership in them is considered a privilege, and is usually preceded by considerable screening. The ideology of terrorists is developed and reinforced through the close personal solidarity within these groups, along with isolation from the rest of the world (a standard practice for cults). Rather than being "crazy," terrorists tend to be well-educated, not overly religious, and psychologically well-adjusted, and they're largely motivated by desire for social acceptance in a group which is considered honorable and prestigious. Participation in such groups gives their lives meaning and purpose, even if they're likely to eventually die because of their participation (likewise for soldiers, emergency rescuers, and others we regard as heroes).
* We tend to feel safer in situations where we feel in control (eg, driving cars), even if those situations are statistically much less safe than other situations where we lack control (eg, flying in airplanes).
* We tend to fear exotic threats (eg, murder and terrorist attack), even if we're at much higher risk from mundane threats (eg, smoking and obesity).
* People in large groups tend to be less charitable (which is why restaurants automatically add tips for large groups).
* We're wired to help people on a personal and individual basis while neglecting the more abstract suffering of large masses of people. So much for utilitarian moral theory ...
To help deal with the influences of the hidden brain, Vedantam describes two main strategies: (a) attentive and disciplined application of reason, and (b) designing public policies and laws which account for and compensate for the hidden brain, rather than assuming that we're all primarily rational agents. Unfortunately, he doesn't go into further detail by offering more specific suggestions.
As far as the writing, Vedantam's background in journalism is very evident, since the bulk of the book consists of anecdotal stories to illustrate the various points. For the most part, the stories are effective, since they're told well and have emotional impact (hence connecting with the reader's hidden brain), though I did find them to be on the long side, and I especially found the last quarter of the book to drag on too long. Like another reviewer, I also felt that Vedantam sometimes over-relied on the hidden brain model, at the expense of complementary or alternative explanations, and I think this is an increased risk associated with reading a book written by a journalist rather than an expert working in the field.
Overall though, I still think this is a worthwhile book, so I'm pleased to recommend it and give it 4 stars. But also be sure to consider some of the other good books in this genre, such as Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, and Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.