December 15, 2020

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How our unconscious minds
elect presidents, control markets,
wage wars, and save our lives

by Shankar Vedantam
Spiegel & Grau, 2010

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages
    Quote = "Unconscious biases in the way memory, emotion, and attention work produced misunderstandings and protracted conflicts between people, groups --- even nations. Subtle errors of the mind could explain why we have rushed into foolish wars and why we have sat on our hands as genocides unfolded... Sociological experiments explained why people unconsciously made fatal mistakes during disasters." by author Shankar Vedantam (4)
    note = “If unconscious forces could influence us when we made swift judgments about other people, could these forces influence us all the time? ... I quickly found research that showed how hidden tugs caused people to make grave financial errors and misjudgments about risk. Experiments were showing that voters could be manipulated into choosing one candidate over another — without the voters ever realizing they were manipulated." (3-4)

    note = "There was even research into the unconscious biases of suicide bombers. Most people equate the term 'unconscious bias' with prejudice or partiality, but the new research was using the term differently: 'unconscious bias' described any situation where people’s actions were at odds with their intentions. The devilish thing was that people never felt manipulated. They rationalized their biases away and even claimed ownership for actions they had not intended!" (4)

    note = "Some unconscious biases were comical, others were innocuous. Many were useful. But the deadly ones conjured a Shakespearean [tragedy]... unconscious bias influenced people subtly, not overtly. It caused them to make serious errors of judgment --- and then feel certain about their conclusions. It derived much of its power from the fact that people were unaware of it. Theories about the unconscious mind went back centuries, but the new research appealed to me because it was based on measurable evidence. It relied on controlled experiments. It produced data." (4)

    note = "In writing a Washington Post column called Department of Human Behavior that I launched in 2006, I learned that one reason unconscious biases were difficult to spot is that they were often mundane. When we saw something as monstrous as genocide, we wanted an explanation that was equally dramatic. We demanded ‘Hitlers’ to explain holocausts. Dramatic explanations did not just fit better --- they allowed us to write off systematic errors in human judgment, perception, and moral reasoning as mere aberrations. I saw that a vast gulf had grown between what experts were learning about the mind and what most people believed." (5)

    note = "Important institutions in our society were oblivious to the new research. When disasters trapped thousands, we widened the exits to tall buildings and assumed this would allow people trapped by future disasters to escape. When discrimination reared its head, we passed hate crime laws. When the stock markets acted crazy, we blamed 'unreasonable panic.' We believed that frightening teenagers about the consequences of drugs and unsafe sex would prompt them to be careful, we assumed that fact — checking the tall claims of politicians would set the record straight, and we were sure that good laws produced good behavior." (5)

    note = "All these theories were based on an assumption — that human behavior was the product of knowledge and conscious intention. We believed that if you educated people, and provided them with accurate information, and offered them the right incentives, and threatened them with suitable punishments, and appealed to their better natures, and marked the exits clearly, the errors would vanish. Bad outcomes had to be the product of stupidity, ignorance, and bad intentions." (5)

    note = "Like many assumptions, this one was impervious to contradictory evidence. When teenagers got drunk and wrecked their cars, when voters believed a politician’s lies, and when juries convicted innocent people, we invariably concluded that those particular teens must have been stupid, that those particular voters must have been gullible, and that those particular juries must have been rash. Even when such errors were multiplied hundreds or thousands of times — when large numbers of people failed to flee disasters, when entire ethnic groups subscribed to vicious prejudices, when millions failed to intervene as their neighbors were dragged off to concentration camps — we convinced ourselves that these behaviors were aberrational, not the norm." (5-6)

    note = "The new research showed that many errors, mishaps, and tragedies were caused by unconscious forces that acted upon people without their awareness or consent. The irresponsible driver, the apathetic bystander, and the panicked investor were not aberrations. They were us! Thinking about human behavior in the context of unconscious bias explained many things to me that previously seemed inexplicable. It was not just the small stuff — the gifted athlete who choked under pressure, the family feud over something trivial, the misjudgment in risk that produced a fender-bender — it was the big stuff, too. The uncritical decisions of policy makers that led to domestic and foreign policy catastrophes? Check. The stampeding panics that dragged entire economies to ruin? Check. The collective willingness of nations to avert their gaze from oncoming disasters? That, too." (6)

    note = "Unconscious biases have always dogged us, but multiple factors made them especially dangerous today. Globalization and technology, and the intersecting ‘faultlines’ of religious extremism, economic upheaval, demographic change, and mass migration have amplified the effects of hidden biases. Our mental errors once affected only ourselves and those in our vicinity. Today, they affect people in distant lands and generations yet unborn. The flapping butterfly that caused a hurricane halfway around the world was a theoretical construct; today, subtle biases in faraway minds produce real storms in our lives." (6)

    note = "This book grew out of these thoughts. I wanted to place the ideas that I found so exciting, unnerving, and provocative before a larger audience. If science and rigorous studies were to be the backbone of the book, I wanted to show why the research mattered — not just in the ivory tower, but in the public square. I decided to find stories from real life that could illustrate the extraordinary effects of unconscious bias in everyday life. The selection of stories in this book is mine and mine alone. To the extent that they are wrong, misleading, or simplistic, the responsibility lies solely with me." (6-7)

    note = "To the extent that they are revealing and insightful — and not merely interesting — the credit mostly belongs to the hundreds of researchers whose work I have cited. I made a deliberate decision to personify the hidden forces that influence us in everyday life. (7)

    note = "I made the deliberate decision to personify the hidden forces that influence us in everyday life. I coined a term: the "hidden brain." It did not refer to a secret agent inside our skulls or some recently unearthed brain module. The ‘hidden brain’ was shorthand for a range of influences that manipulated us without our awareness. Some aspects of the hidden brain had to do with the pervasive problem of mental shortcuts or heuristics, others were related to errors in the way memory and attention worked. Some dealt with social dynamics and relationships. What was common to them all was that we were unaware of their influence." (7)

    note = "There were dimensions of the hidden brain where, with effort, we could become aware of our biases, but there were many aspects of the hidden brain that were permanently sealed off from introspection. Unconscious bias was not caused by a secret puppeteer who sat inside our heads, but the effects of bias were as though such a puppeteer existed. The ‘hidden brain,’ in other words, was a writing device, much like the 'selfish gene.' Just as there were no strands of DNA that shouted 'Me first!' no part of the human brain was disguised under sunglasses and fedora. By drawing a simple line between mental activities we were aware of and mental activities we were not aware of, the ‘hidden brain’ subsumed many concepts in wide circulation whose definitions were frequently the subject of dissension: the unconscious, the subconscious, the implicit." (7)

    note = "If my debt to the researchers whose work I have cited is immense, my debt to those who shared personal stories with me is incalculable. Many stories in this book describe the effects of unconscious bias on people during moments of great vulnerability. The opening chapter is about a woman who made a serious error identifying the man who raped her. It is a story I would have preferred not to tell — journalistic accounts of rape are troubling for many reasons — but sex crimes offer a powerful window into unconscious bias because they allow us to measure the accuracy of human intuitions against the iron rigor of DNA tests. I doubt I would have had the courage to share the story that Toni Gustus shared with me. Her honesty and the honesty of many others in this book reminded me of a great truth: Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish." (7-8)

    note = "Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it!" (8)

2) THE UBIQUITOUS SHADOW — The hidden brain at work and play (24-42)

[1] The spotlight effect (25-28)

[2] The irresistible heuristic (28-30)

[3] The three-legged race (30-32)

[4] The selfish brain (33-42)

3) TRACKING THE HIDDEN BRAIN — How mental disorders reveal our unconscious lives (43-59)

4) THE INFANT'S STARE, MACACA, AND RACIST SENIORS — The life cycle of bias (60-87)

5) THE INVISIBLE CURRENT — Gender, privilege, and the hidden brain (88-111)

6) THE SIREN'S CALL — Disasters and the lure of conformity (112-137)

7) THE TUNNEL — Terrorism, extremism, and the hidden brain (138-167)

8) SHADES OF JUSTICE — Unconscious bias and the death penalty (168-187)

9) DISARMING THE BOMB — Politics, race, and the hidden brain (188-229)

10) THE TELESCOPE EFFECT — Lost dogs and genocide (230-255)


NOTES (261-270)

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. and is the longtime author of the Washington Post's popular "Department of Human Behavior" column.

SUMMARY = Shankar Vedantam takes us on a tour of "hidden brain" and explores its consequences. Using original reporting that combines the latest scientific research with compulsively readable narratives that take readers from the American campaign trail to terrorist indoctrination camps, from the World Trade Center on 9/11 to a puppy adrift in the Pacific Ocean. He illuminates the dark recesses of our minds while making an original argument about how we can compensate for our blind spots --- and what happens when we don't!

BOOK DESCRIPTION = The phrase "hidden brain" is Vedantam's shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside of our conscious awareness. But they have a decisive effect on how we behave. In the book, he explains how the brain has its finger on the scale when we make all of our most complex and important decisions. It decides who we fall in love with, whether we should convict someone of murder, or which way to run when someone yells "fire!" And it explains why we can become riveted by the story of a single puppy adrift on an ocean but are quickly bored by a story of genocide. The hidden brain can also be deliberately manipulated to vote against their interest, or even become suicide terrorists. But the most disturbing thing is that it does all of this largely without our knowing it.

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FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY = Washington Post science journalist Shankar Vedantam argues that there is a hidden world in our heads filled with unconscious biases, often small, hidden errors in thinking that manipulate our attitudes and actions without our knowing it. Autonomy is a myth, he says, because knowledge and rational intention are not responsible for our choices. This thesis is not news — since Freud, psychologists have taken the unconscious into account — but Vedantam explains that if we are influenced sometimes, then why not all the time, whether we are launching a romance or a genocide? This is a frightening leap in logic.

In anecdotal, journalistic prose, we learn that, through bias, rape victims can misidentify their attacker; people are more honest even with just a subtle indication that they are being watched; polite behavior has to do with the fronto-temporal lobes rather than with how one was raised; and that we can be unconsciously racist and sexist. Though drawing on the latest psychological research, Vedantam's conclusions are neither trite nor unconvincing.

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[1] Shankar Vedantam, 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 book is a smart and engaging exploration of the science behind the headlines... Don't miss it. -- Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.

[2] 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 the book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.


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