Category Archives: Politics

HIDDEN BRAIN PUZZLE (AND ANSWER): Sexism in the Workplace — Some Paradoxical Evidence

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You are a woman worried about sexism who has applied for a job. When you enter your interviewer’s office, you see (a) an office with newspapers, stationery & dictionaries (b) an office with Playboy posters, motorcycle mags & hunting awards (c) an office with rainbow flags and plaques about diversity. Which prospective interviewer is likely to elicit the WORST interview performance from you and why?

The obvious answer, of course, is B. Equally obviously, of course, there is a catch. It turns out that the correct answer is A. It’s the office that contains no clues about the prospective interviewer’s views about gender/sexism/diversity etc that poses the greatest threat to the self-confidence of our prospective interviewee. Remember the puzzle said this was an interviewee who was concerned about sexism. It turns out that ambiguous information (or no information) creates more of a concern to people worried about something (as they spend time trying to figure out who they are dealing with) than a person with explicitly threatening views.

I constructed this puzzle from an experiment conducted last year by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Lindsay Shaw-Taylor, Serena Chen and Eunice Chang. The researchers asked female volunteers who were worried about sexism to take a test, and provided them with information ahead of time about the office of the person who would be evaluating them. The offices were broadly similar to what I described in the puzzle. The women given the ambiguous information performed much worse on the test than women given more explicit cues that their evaluator was likely to hold sexist views. The researchers published their work in a paper called “Ironic effects of explicit gender prejudice on women’s test performance” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The wrong lesson to draw from this experiment is that interviewers should display Playboy pinups in their offices ahead of interviews with female job candidates. The right lesson to draw is that if you want people to perform at their best — and managers, companies and institutions pay a clear price when talented job-seekers underperform during interviews — you have to make it explicit that you don’t count yourself among the knuckleheads.

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The IRS Suicide Bomber and Tunnel Vision

By | Blog, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Terrorism | No Comments

Joseph Stack, the Texas man who burned his house down and then recently flew a plane into an IRS building, killing one person, has some stark similarities to the the suicide bomber I write about in The Hidden Brain. Like Stack, Larry Layton was white and American — which apparently makes it difficult for some commentators to think of his action as an act of terrorism. In an ongoing Newsweek debate, senior editors are asking whether the label terrorist should be applied only to foreign actors. It’s intellectually muddled — what happens the next time Al Qaeda recruits an American to carry out a terrorist attack in the United States? Would that be terrorism — foreign actors were behind the mission — or not an act of terrorism, since it was an American who actually carried out the attack? The debate over whether Stack should be called a terrorist shows how problematic the definition of terrorism continues to be. I’ve long been in favor of using the consistent definition that terrorism expert Brian Jenkins utilizes: Terrorism is theater. The central difference between terrorist violence and other kinds of violence is that terrorists uses violence symbolically — the real target is not the person/building/institution being attacked but everyone who is watching. When you are angry at some group of people and you pick someone from that group at random to attack, you are engaging in terrorism, because the point of the attack is to send a message to everyone else in the group. Terrorists devalue their victims by turning them into props, and that is exactly what Joseph Stack did when he flew a plane into an IRS building. It did not matter to Stack which IRS worker he killed, just as it did not matter to Al Qaeda which Americans were in the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11, because the real targets of these attacks were not the victims directly affected but everyone else who was watching.

For a video introduction to the chapter in The Hidden Brain that talks about how tunnel vision shapes people into suicide bombers and terrorists, please click on the link titled The Tunnel here. Contrary to popular belief, I show that terrorists are not distinguished by their personalities, religious beliefs or internal make-up, but rather by their environments. The process by which people become suicide bombers is remarkably similar whether you are talking about Japanese kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers in Sri Lanka in the 1980s or Joseph Stack.

The Wage Gap — How unconscious bias affects how we think about the value of work in "female" professions

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I recently came by some remarkable research by Christine Alksnis at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario that offers an intriguing way to think about the wage gap — men and women are typically paid different wages for doing the same work in the United States, with women’s income ranging from 77 cents to 89 cents for every dollar earned by men. One reason offered by apologists for the wage gap is that men and women choose different kinds of professions. If you choose to become a high school teacher you can’t expect to make as much money as a software engineer, right? If only more women would go into traditionally masculine professions, the apologists say, the wage gap would vanish.

If it were only that easy. As I describe in The Invisible Current chapter in The Hidden Brain, unconscious sexism is ubiquitous and works in subtle ways. (Watch a video introduction to the chapter here). The problem is not just that the labor of women is undervalued relative to the labor of men in the same profession, but that professions that employ lots of women are undervalued compared to professions that tend to employ men.

The question, in other words, may not be why women don’t become software engineers as often as they become high school teachers, but why software engineers are paid so much more than high school teachers? It’s the marketplace, you say? The market decides on the value of each profession and the market is neutral?

Alksnis and a colleague, Serge Desmarais, conducted an experiment that provides hard evidence to back up the intuitions of many feminist scholars who have long argued that we undervalue professions that employ women for little more reason than that these professions employ lots of women. They asked volunteers to estimate the salaries of store clerks and magazine editors. The catch was that volunteers were asked to estimate the salaries of two kinds of store clerks and two kinds of magazine editors. One store clerk was said to sell china and crystal, the other store clerk was said to sell hardware. One magazine editor was in charge of an automotive magazine and the other was the editor of a gourmet food magazine. Can you see what the researchers are upto? The skills, experience and educational qualifications required to be a store clerk in either case, or to be an editor in either case, are identical, but we tend to think of these positions in gendered terms. We think of the editor of the automotive magazine as being a man, and the gourmet magazine as being a woman, the china store clerk as being female, and the hardware clerk as being male.

Alksnis found that both male and female volunteers picked lower salaries when asked to guesstimate the salary of the store clerk who sold china compared to the salary of the hardware store clerk, and a lower salary for the gourmet food magazine editor compared to the automotive magazine editor. Ironically, the volunteers said the skills required for the different store clerks, and the different magazine editors, were identical.

In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Alksnis and Desmarais wrote, that “when participants assigned salaries to what they perceived as “male” and “female” jobs, the jobs that they identified as female-typed were assigned less pay than were the jobs they identified as male-type.”

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The Leonard Lopate Show and Mike Pesca discuss The Hidden Brain and unconscious biases in disasters, politics and among small children

By | Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Prejudice, Review | No Comments

I spent some time in the interview talking about an unconscious bias I discovered in my own three year-old daughter. Before she could tie her own shoelaces, she had already come to the conclusion that nurses always have to be women, and that doctors usually have to be men. Where do you think this bias came from? You can listen to the interview here or download an MP3 file, and learn what I think parents ought to be doing to confront the unconscious biases that can be observed in children right from the time they are toddlers — biases that stay with us well into adolescence and adulthood.

Much of the research into the biases of small children is described in Chapter 4 of The Hidden Brain, which is titled “The Infant’s Stare, Macaca, and Racist Seniors.” You can watch a short video introduction to the chapter here — scroll down to the section titled Table of Contents and Video Summaries.

Many people are familiar with the famous experiments conducted in the 1940s that showed the strong preferences that small black children had for white dolls over black dolls. A remarkable replication of the experiment was conducted recently, and you can watch a short video of the new experiment here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you think parents can do to confront the unconscious biases of their children.

George Allen's "macaca" comment: Does he deserve compassion or censure?

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There have been a couple of reviews/accounts about The Hidden Brain that mention my thoughts about George Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment — Allen repeatedly referred to a young Indian-American as “macaca”  — comments which contributed to Allen’s losing his Senate race, and the Republicans losing control of the U.S. Senate in 2006. The section of the book where I discuss the Allen case also mentions another incident where the entertainer Michael Richards (who played Kramer on the show Seinfeld) used racist language to silence a black heckler at a comedy club.

In the book, I write, “Most Americans think of Allen’s comments and Richards’s views as abhorrent—and they are. But unpleasant and inaccurate associations lie within all of us, which is why when we see someone slip, our reaction should not be “We finally caught that racist bastard!” but, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” When we focus mountains of newsprint and television time on these incidents, we implicitly set ourselves off as different from the George Allens and the Michael Richardses. We convince ourselves that biased attitudes are the exception, when dozens of research studies have shown that they are really the norm—among blacks and whites. I am not saying everyone associates brown people with “macaca”—I had to run to a dictionary myself to find out what the word meant. What I am saying is that we all have mindless associations in our hidden brain that surface when we are not on guard.”

In his Washington Post review, Peter D Kramer (author of Listening to Prozac and other books) said he was skeptical that Allen’s comments stemmed from his unconscious. He pointed out that I also castigate politicians for deliberately injecting race into campaigns. Isn’t it possible that Allen used the term “macaca” deliberately? Shouldn’t he receive our censure rather than our compassion?

There are multiple issues, and multiple (unexamined) assumptions here. First, as Kramer notes in his review, I hold George Allen entirely responsible for his comments, even if they stemmed from his unconscious mind, because regardless of whether our impulses are conscious or unconscious, we are always responsible for our actions. Second, no one other than George Allen really knows what was happening in his mind and, if you buy my assertions about the hidden brain, it is also possible George Allen didn’t really know what was happening in his mind. Third, as I note in the book, there are certainly plenty of people who have consciously prejudiced views.

But I think there is a strong case to be made that Allen was not thinking consciously when he made his comment. As I say in the book, “Let’s turn the question around. Let us assume that Allen and Richards did not have a hidden brain, that their comments were the product of conscious intent. George Allen’s crack now seems even more peculiar than it already did. (Who calls someone a “macaca,” anyway?) If Allen had been consciously trying to slur the Indian American at his rally, he was engaging in intentional political suicide. The young man Allen addressed was taping him on a video camera—and he was working for Allen’s opponent in the Senate race. Sure enough, Allen denied being suicidal. In his flustered attempt to explain his comments, he said, “It’s contrary to what I believe and who I am.”

There is a deeper issue here that is very important. The conventional way we think about prejudice is to automatically associate it with hatred and animosity. In other words, our conception of prejudice is limited to conscious prejudice. One of the central ideas in my book is that prejudice can also be unconscious. That does not make it acceptable, and that does not allow those who express racist sentiments or act in racist ways off the hook. We are always responsible for our actions, regardless of whether they spring from conscious or unconscious motives.

But it does suggest that our conventional approach to prejudice — which is to castigate the person who said the racist thing or fire the manager who said the racist thing — is not very effective at combating racism. When we tell someone they said something racist, their invariable reaction is that they did not mean to be offensive. And because we generally don’t believe the unconscious really exists, the conversation stops there. In many ways, this limited understanding of our minds is the reason people do not take responsibility for their own actions. George Allen, for example, can ask himself if he has conscious animosity toward Indian-Americans, his conscious mind responds “no,” and he then internally dismisses all criticism. But if he were to accept that his comments sprang from unconscious associations in his hidden brain — and that those unconscious associations still persist and could influence him again in other settings — he would have to have an entirely different conversation with himself, because it would no longer be sufficient to say, “but I didn’t mean it.”

A central message in my book is that it doesn’t really matter whether we mean it. It doesn’t really matter whether we intend to be fair. It doesn’t really matter whether we think of ourselves as good and kind people. Taking personal responsibility does not stop at merely checking the contents of our conscious minds. It must extend to examining our unconscious minds as well.

The Diane Rehm Show featured The Hidden Brain — Disasters, the Criminal Justice System, and naked Visigoths

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Listen to an interview about The Hidden Brain conducted by the Diane Rehm show. The show was guest-hosted by the immensely talented Susan Page of USA Today, and featured a discussion that ranged from how to reform our criminal justice system to same-sex attraction among Visigoths. Sorry, I can’t say more. You’ll just have to listen to it.

The Supreme Court and the hidden brain — new ruling on campaigns and speech

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The Supreme Court recently lifted limits on private organizations creating campaign ads, and argued that such restrictions infringed on the First Amendment rights of individuals and organizations.

Much of the ruling’s rationale is based on the idea that humans do much or all of their thinking consciously. At a conscious level, it makes sense that more information is better, because if we are fed an erroenous piece of information, having access to a wide variety of ads/info is likely to provide us with information that can set the misinformation to rest. Good information, in other words, can drive bad information out of circulation.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court does not seem to realize that we do most (or at least much) of our thinking unconsciously. As I was quoted saying in this USA Today article, the more-information-is-always-better rule breaks down dramatically in the hidden brain. Better information not only does not always drive bad information out of circulation, it sometimes amplifies the effects of bad information. Partisans who see dearly-held facts questioned — such as the widespread belief among Republicans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the recent war was launched, for example — see their pre-existing beliefs strengthened after being provided information that Iraq did not have such weapons. (In their minds, these partisans argued back with the new information, and thereby strengthened their prior beliefs.)

And even when good information “wins” at a conscious level, it often does little or nothing to correct the attitudes created by bad information. Democrats given misinformation about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts — to the effect that Roberts supported the bombing of abortion clinics — immediately developed extremely negative views about Roiberts (who was of course nominated by a Republican president.) When the misinformation was corrected in an extremely convincing manner, leaving no doubt that the original claim was false, the partisans conceded the information was inaccurate, but their attitudes toward Roberts remained extremely negative.

Washington Post: The Hidden Brain and Moral Judgment

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The Washington Post organized an online chat to discuss an excerpt from The Hidden Brain that was published in the Sunday magazine. The excerpt was drawn from the final chapter of my book, and it explores several paradoxes in our ability to make good moral judgments. The central paradox is that people seem predisposed to care about the few rather than about the many — hence the title of the book chapter, The Telescope Effect.

Readers of the Washington Post from all over the world who joined the discussion asked a range of absolutely fascinating — and, at times, terrifyingly difficult — questions. If one cares deeply about animals, is it wrong to care more about an abandoned dog than a homeless person? Should I be giving money to help a destitute family member in Baltimore, or to earthquake victims in Haiti — who are even more destitute? Is healthcare rationing moral or immoral?

You can read a transcript of the conversation here. Please weigh in with your own thoughts. You can also start a discussion group to talk about how unconscious bias might affect your profession, personal interests or community at

Salon: "A wide array of vivid true stories"

By | Diversity, Politics, Prejudice, Review | No Comments features an interview about The Hidden Brain.

“Of the many viral-video meltdowns pop culture has endured, few are as viscerally disturbing, as painful to watch, as Michael Richards’ racist rant during a 2006 stand-up appearance. As you’ll no doubt remember, the man better known as Kramer lashed out at a heckler in his audience with a shocking string of slurs, including the brutally memorable line, “Fifty years ago, we’d have you upside down with a fork up your ass.” The breakdown so outraged the general public that even today, if you Google “Michael Richards,” it auto-completes to “Michael Richards racist.”

Shankar Vedantam, a science writer with the Washington Post, uses the Michael Richards incident in his new book, “The Hidden Brain,” to illustrate the way he believes our unconscious can betray us — and reveal biases we wouldn’t even acknowledge to ourselves. Vedantam uses a wide array of vivid true stories to make his point: The tragic tale of a woman who is brutally beaten in front of dozens of onlookers illustrates how a crowd’s inaction can trick our brain into ignoring pleas for help; two transsexuals who’ve experienced both sides of the gender divide help illuminate how unconscious sexism can change lives.”