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The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, and save our lives

Shankar Vedantam
Nonfiction 270 pages
Spiegel & Grau. 2010

What a concept. We think we’re reasonable. Shankar Vedantam thinks maybe we’re not. His book explores the ways in which we fool ourselves into thinking that we make rational decisions — when in fact much of the time, we follow our unconscious biases, rather than reason.

Vedantam uses the term “hidden brain” to describe mental processes which affect our behavior without our conscious awareness of their influence. These result from errors in attention and memory; mental shortcuts we form and follow; relationships and social dynamics.

In some cases, it’s possible to train ourselves to identify and become aware of these hidden influences. In other cases, the influences remain hidden. American society however operates as if human behavior is primarily based on reason.

Vedantam presents an example involving a rape conviction based on false identification.  The woman, who identified the wrong man as her rapist, became convinced of his guilt while she was praying in church. Initially uncertain, her doubts dissolved in the safety of her church.

Emotions can affect our memories and convictions — and that’s what happened in this case. After DNA evidence had proved his innocence, the woman met the man. Upon meeting him, the first thing she noticed convinced her that she’d been wrong.

Vedantam discusses how social scientists test for racial bias — and find it even among people who claim to be unprejudiced. We believe we live in a fair society, yet experimental evidence shows that people tend to recommend the harshest penalties to those whose skin is darkest.

Sexual bias is common as well. Transgender individuals report receiving greater respect and higher salaries when they change from women to men. The opposite is reported by those who change from men to women.

Recently controversy has arisen over the possibility that a mosque might be built close to “Ground Zero.” Implicit to the controversy is the association between the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and Islam. Former President Bush declared a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam. To some people it means the same thing. But, you don’t have to be a Muslim to be a suicide bomber.

Vedantam reports that during the closing days of World War II, Japanese kamikazes flew suicide missions for their country. Those chosen to be kamikazes felt themselves to be among a privileged elite.  Psychologist, Masami Takahashi, son of a former kamikaze, reports that most of those who volunteered for suicide missions were not religious. It was the chance to be a hero that motivated them. Interviews with present day terrorist recruits have uncovered the same motivations.  Many of these recruits aren’t particularly religious. Vedantam quotes Marc Sageman, “People want to be suicide bombers because they are the rock stars of militant Islam.” So, what’s really needed is a war on rock star wannabes and not on moderate Muslims.

Vedantam compares the viewpoint of those who join cults or elite military units to being in a tunnel. Such people narrow their mental focus, attending to the views and aims of their particular group, and not on the world at large.

A few hours before more than 900 Americans died after they drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana, five others died at Guyana’s Port Katuna Airstrip.  These were gunned down by Larry Layton, another People’s Temple member. Larry had volunteered for a suicide mission to bring down a plane returning to the United States. The mission went awry — Larry survived, but five of the plane’s passengers did not.

Why had Larry Layton volunteered? He was living in a tunnel: “As he sat in his prison cell in Guyana, it slowly became apparent to Layton that the world he had inhabited for so long was not the real world, that it was only a tunnel that had appeared to be the whole world.”

Today the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid,” refers to an uncritical acceptance of what another person or group tells you. You don’t have to be a cult member to “drink the Kool-Aid” — merely an uncritical thinker, influenced by the “hidden brain” rather than its more rational side.   

The “hidden brain” is useful because it helps us make decisions quickly. However, those decisions are not always correct. By becoming more aware about how the hidden brain works, we can begin to make better decisions both as individuals and as a society. Reading this book will get you started on the road to expanded awareness.