By Shankar Vedantam, piegel & Grau, August 31, 2010, 0385525222

I have listened to all the Hidden Brain podcasts. The book complements the podcasts quite nicely. There are recurring themes, but the book is a cohesive look at our unconscious mind. The podcasts are more like a survey of a topic.

I read this over a year ago so I don’t remember what I felt at the time. I remember thinking about bias quite a bit after reading the book. Shankar Vedantam write, “reason is our only bulwark against bias.” I would say that’s true, but we also need to train our minds to learn new patterns. That’s more than reason, it’s hard work. This book gives me the reasons to take on that challenge.

[k84] 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.

[k110] Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.

[k217] Discomfort, not comfort, was Gustus’s real friend in the situation. By soothing it away, she erased the signal she had that something was wrong.

[k252] Overweight job applicants, to cite just one example, are widely perceived to be less intelligent and successful–and lazier and more immoral–than identically qualified people of normal weight.

[k282] The hidden brain sacrifices sophistication to achieve speed.

[k314] The shift in understanding about human behavior has been quiet, but its implications are seismic. Nearly all our social, political, and economic institutions are based on an assumption of how human beings behave that is at best incomplete and at worst fundamentally wrong.

[k321] Our vulnerability to unconscious manipulation explains how a few schemers can hold entire political systems hostage.

[k437] Their hidden brains associated the names of companies that were easy to pronounce with a sense of comfort, and the names of companies that were difficult to pronounce with a sense of discomfort. Comfort is linked to familiarity and safety, which is why investors chose some stocks and drove up the prices. Discomfort is associated with risk and unfamiliarity, which is why investors avoided those stocks and undervalued them. Applying heuristics–shortcuts linking comfort with safety and discomfort with risk–to situations for which they have not been designed is a recipe for trouble.

[k607] Although they appear to be doing identical things and have identical interests, John and Virginia have figured out how to do slightly different things–to divide up their everyday tasks so that they work in complementary ways rather than competitive ways.

[k804] One study of sixteen patients with frontotemporal dementia found that among them, the group was guilty of “unsolicited sexual approach or touching,” hit-and-run accidents, physical assaults, shoplifting, public urination, breaking into other people’s homes, and even one case of pedophilia. The patients readily acknowledged their actions were wrong–but showed no remorse. They knew they were breaking the law, but it didn’t matter to them.

[k813] The law does not realize that most law-abiding behavior has little to do with conscious knowledge and motivation.

[k852] People with normal brain functioning do not need to be taught to care about social relationships, and social relationships lie at the heart of all morality.

[k883] If we didn’t have our hidden brain to weed through thousands of scenarios and to guide our attention to the most pertinent questions, we would quickly become overwhelmed, because bad things can potentially happen to us in every conceivable situation. Everyday life requires us to suspend rationality, to be mindless about countless risks.

[k1027] The data, however, prove that unintentional and unconscious bias regularly plays a role in eyewitness errors. Ignoring the role of race, rather than taking it into account, is what produces outcomes that are racist.

[k1275] The fact that racial biases occur “naturally” does not mean they are inevitable. What is inevitable is that children will gravitate toward in-groups, but there is nothing to suggest that race has to be one of the dimensions children use to define themselves. If children can be encouraged to form loyalties to groups that transcend race–to a nation or a school or even a sports team–parents and educators can harness the automatic biases of the mind to drive children from different races together, rather than apart.

[k1304] When we are explicitly asked to state our views, our conscious brain and hidden brain sit down for a chat, and our conscious brain wins the debate every time, because reasoned analysis is always superior to dumb heuristics.

[k1326] Since our entire political discourse is premised on the assumption that the hidden brain does not exist, however, our ability to talk about race in the United States is severely hampered.

[k1379] “More and more, I have gotten to think that some part of our brain is still stuck where we were at four and five and eight, and it is always there,” Aboud told me. “Under stress, people do regress to an early mode.”

[k1757] Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit.

[k1761] And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent.

[k1985] The larger the group, the longer it took to escape. It took time for Aguirre to figure out why the size of groups made such a big difference. The sociologist eventually realized that during disasters, people unconsciously seek consensus with those around them. Groups seek to develop a shared narrative–an explanation for what is happening that is shared by everyone. The larger the group, the longer it took to arrive at a consensus.

[k2043] Our society does not believe the hidden brain exists, which is why we take only people’s conscious minds into account when we design emergency evacuation procedures.

[k2243] But then the Israeli psychologist set out to do what most commentators on terrorism do not do–he began to look for evidence.

[k2279] The dastardliness of terrorist acts keeps us from seeing that the unconscious motivations of suicide terrorists are not unlike the motivations of many other groups, including those we consider heroes. Small-

[k2282] Small-group dynamics explain why ordinary people in military uniforms throw their bodies over live hand grenades and why soldiers volunteer for combat missions where the odds of survival are zero. Patriotism is the name we give to such behavior, but military commanders have known for generations that people don’t give their lives for king, God, and country. That’s what they say. In reality, ordinary men and women give their lives for the sake of the small group of buddies in the trench next to them.

[k2372] For people who preferred their religion more theatrical, Jones would hurl the Bible onto the floor during sermons. After a stunned silence, he would offer himself to the heavens to be struck dead for his act of desecration. When no lightning bolt appeared, Jones would say that the reason God had not killed him was because … Jones himself was God.

[k2375] Jones would reach into people and pull out tumors; only a handful of his inner circle knew the tumors were prearranged pieces of boiled chicken liver.

[k2865] Like deciding which people to hire for jobs, or guessing which stocks to buy, the criminal justice system is based on the idea that human behavior is the product of conscious intention. We believe that juries that want to be fair are fair. We believe good intentions equal good outcomes. The assumption–the false assumption–is that biased outcomes result from deliberate bias and that such errors can be overcome by setting up a confrontational system where prosecutors and defense attorneys keep one another honest.

[k3312] (Gilens similarly found that his volunteers didn’t think that black welfare recipients were lazy; they thought blacks as a whole were lazy.) This is how illusory correlations work: When two unusual events take place simultaneously, our hidden brain subtly biases us to see the events as linked, even if they have nothing to do with each other.

[k3318] The troubling thing is that most voters–and perhaps most politicians–do not understand where their attitudes and beliefs and facts come from.

[k3604] You cannot eliminate feelings by denying their validity; indeed, denying them usually strengthened them. The “I Am an American” ad did not present refutations to the woman’s beliefs or try to show that her feelings were unjustified or wrong. Rather, it was the woman herself who made the emotional decision to override her fears. She wasn’t being corrected. She was being courageous.

[k3696] Unfairness seems written into the DNA of politics, because voters consciously and unconsciously care about a host of factors that candidates cannot control.

[k3748] Contrary to popular notions about the risk of police work, Violanti and others have found that the risk of officers taking their own lives vastly dwarfs the risk that they will be killed in action.

[k3770] Violanti found that military personnel and police officers had a far higher risk of suicide than firefighters. Cops turn out to have about four times the suicide risk of firefighters. Black cops in the United States have nearly five times the suicide risk of black firefighters. White women who are police officers are twelve times more likely to commit suicide than white women who are firefighters.

[k3774] The central difference among cops, military personnel, and firefighters, Violanti concluded, is that cops and military personnel carry guns. Nearly all police suicides involve the use of guns–the vast majority are service weapons. Guns don’t make people suicidal, but they provide the impulse of suicide with a vector–in exactly the same way that the mosquito provides the malaria parasite with a vector. If cops were to check their guns at police departments before they left work, Violanti figured, a substantial number of police suicides might anish

[k3790] As a general rule, movies that contradict our intuitions–even intuitions that are demonstrably false–are movies that few people will care to watch.

[k3796] Neither side pays much attention to the evidence, which shows that people who have guns in their homes are at greater risk of being shot and killed than people who do not have guns in their homes. The risk does not come from homicidal maniacs or muggers or rapists. The risk comes from people using their own guns to shoot themselves or their family members.

[k3802] Only a small number of the four hundred thousand suicide attempts in America each year involve guns, but because people who shoot themselves usually kill themselves, gun suicides account for more than half of all completed suicides.

[k3851] The gun lobby has often questioned the accuracy of these studies and reports. Rather than seek more accurate answers, however, it has leaned on Congress and successive administrations to cut off funding for research into firearm-related violence. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing high rates of gun-related suicide and homicide among American children was published, Congress slashed funding for CDC firearm-injury research. Much of the suicide and homicide data is years old today because the research has effectively been choked off.

[k3916] We have carried our Stone Age brain into the Internet Age. It is Stone Age thinking that prompts us to spend so much of our national budget fighting terrorism and so little on the everyday diseases and threats that kill many, many more Americans–and that are certain to kill many, many more Americans in the years to come.

[k4024] toward mass suffering. We are unconsciously biased in our moral judgment,

[k4039] The reason human beings seem to care so little about mass suffering and death is precisely because the suffering is happening on a mass scale.

[k4043] If the hidden brain biases our perceptions about risk toward exotic threats, it shapes our compassion into a telescope. We are best able to respond when we are focused on a single victim.

[k4051] Even if ten deaths do not make us feel ten times as sad as a single death, shouldn’t we feel five times as sad, or even at least twice as sad? There is disturbing evidence that shows that in many situations, not only do we not care twice as much about ten deaths as we do about one, but we may actually care less.

[k4075] Evolutionary psychology tends to be an armchair sport, so please take my explanation for the paradox as one of several possible answers.

[k4081] Without the unthinking telescope effect in the unconscious mind, parents would not devote the immense time and effort it takes to raise children; generations of our ancestors would not have braved danger and cold, predators and hunger, to protect their young.

[k4085] When we think of human suffering on a mass scale, our telescope does not work, because it has not been designed to work in such situations.

What makes evolutionary sense rarely makes moral sense. (One paradox of evolution is that ruthless natural selection has produced a species that recoils at the ruthlessness of natural selection.)