Why Juan Williams Fears Muslims at Airports

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Ever hear of the phenomenon called an “illusory correlation”? It explains why commentator Williams, who was recently fired from NPR, associates Muslims at airports with terrorists.

I am going to be writing my next column for Slate about this issue. To whet your appetite, here’s a radio interview about illusory correlations and other biases with Steve Fast of WJBC. 

The IRS Suicide Bomber and Tunnel Vision

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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.

"Your Brain Will Love This Book"

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More reviews from Amazon readers … This one from H.F. Gibbard

This has to be the most readable book about how the mind works that I have picked up in ages. There is not a dull chapter in the book, and the writing at times reaches a level worthy of a good novel. The ideas explored are fascinating.

“The Hidden Brain” is the part of our mind that is not ordinarily accessible to our consciousness through introspection. In other words, we don’t know that it is there, and can’t detect it just by thinking about it. But it controls many things that we do, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Vedantam concludes that it developed in human beings to promote survival under primitive conditions, and is still performing its functions today, whether they are appropriate to our current circumstances or not.

This is not entirely new. Freud and Jung both believed in powerful unconscious forces. Science fiction thrives on the idea of “monsters from the id” set loose by some alien technology. What makes this book worth reading is the way Vedantam brings current research on these topics to life. He starts with the simple and mundane, like a study that showed that pictures of staring eyes near an “honor system” coffee pot reduced employee theft. Then he turns to a case study of a woman with frontotemporal dementia, a horrifying condition that causes people to lose their social inhibitions without knowing what they’ve lost. He describes studies that demonstrate the reality of unconscious race and gender bias, even in people who would abhor such behavior at a conscious level. With consummate skill he draws us into the events of 9/11 and shows how our unconscious bias in favor of group consensus led to unnecessary deaths among its victims. He also shows the other side of the story: how peer pressure motivates suicide bombers and others who commit horrible acts like 9/11. The writing is of a quality rarely seen in a book of this type.

In the end, I wasn’t sure I was persuaded that the hidden brain is quite as intractable and mysterious as Vedantam makes it out to be. The whole point of many psychological and religious techniques is to make the unconscious conscious, and I think people can have some success at this. Vedantam doesn’t blame anybody for the things their hidden brain makes them do, but I think some people are more mentally lazy and willing to indulge their unconscious biases than others. Plus, I maybe have a little more faith in the role of education in counteracting the hidden brain than he does. But I felt like I learned a lot from this book, even when I disagreed with it.

Airport Screeners — Voyeurism vs Boredom

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There is a provocative article today about the use of new airport screening machines that can visualize with great detail what people look like under their clothes. The machines are being ushered into airports with urgency after the recently attempted terror attack on Christmas eve.

The idea of machines that take naked pictures of airline travelers is a titillating idea, of course, and images of randy airport screeners ogling naked people springs to mind. What is harder to bring to mind, of course, is the effect of the hidden brain on this process. Humans have an extraordinary ability to adapt to their circumstances — the tenth cookie does not taste as sweet as the first, the 16th cigarette of the day pales in its effect compared to the first, the 90th week in a wheelchair is not as painful as the tenth, and so on. This phenomenon of diminishing returns is sometimes called a hedonic treadmill — you run and run, but never make as much forward progress as your first step onto the treadmill. (This is part of the reason people make dreadful errors in forecasting their future happinesses and unhappinesses — we mistakenly assume the way we feel in the first moment we experience something is the way we will feel about that thing after ten years.)

I have no quibble with the very real debate between privacy and security. But the risk of voyeurism shouldn’t occupy our fears. It’s the risk of boredom among airport screeners that is the much greater concern, in terms of how the mind works. I don’t care if the airline passengers are Hollywood’s most glamorous stars — having to watch a thousand naked stars a day would make even a voyeur’s eyes glaze over.

Santa Claus Myths

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As children, we all like Santa Claus. But it would be odd if an adult were invested in the fantasy, went to great pains to prove the existence of Santa, and denied all questions about the burly man in the red suit. That would not be charming. It would be silly, even disturbing.

David Brooks recently asked why it is we insist on holding on to certain national fantasies. He was writing in the context of recent handwringing over the state of our national security in light of Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted terrorist attack. Brooks wrote:


In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.

When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said. I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.


Throughout The Hidden Brain, and especially in the final chapter, I talk about how unconscious biases distort our national priorities and conversation. Over the last decade, this has been especially true when it comes to how we think and talk about terrorism. One reason we care disproportionately about terrorism — and will not stand for our leaders talking to us in commonsensical ways about it — is that the human mind is designed to be disproportionately vigilant to threats that are novel and unpredictable. (This is why we see hype and hysteria over Swine Flu, even when the garden-variety regular flu is liable to be much more dangerous.) Terrorism also involves figures who actively mean to do us harm, and we are disproportionately vigilant to threats that involve malevolent intent, even when threats that do not involve such intent are more dangerous. We don’t fear cardiovascular risk in the visceral way we fear terrorists — ever hear of a video game where the bad guys are called Low Density Lipoproteins? — even though the number of people who die from heart attacks are orders of magnitude larger than the number of people killed by terrorists.

I don’t think a president would have much trouble talking to us in commonsensical ways about heart disease, about the importance of thinking about risk, about weighing false positives versus false negatives, and so on. When it comes to terrorism, ancient algorithms in the brain make it very difficult for us to think about our fears in deliberate ways. That’s why we line up when our leaders serve us two scoops of Santa with a topping of Tooth Fairy powder.

False Positives vs False Negatives

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Every time there is a terrorist incident (or an attempted terrorist incident) in the United States, supporters and critics of more intrusive security measures engage in a form of intellectual dishonesty. Those who advocate greater security measures argue that they can carry out those measures without harming innocents. Those who criticize those measures argue that reducing surveillance carries no cost in reduced security. There are indeed some aspects of security that are, in effect, a free lunch. No one argues about the utility of putting in place security measures that carry zero risk of harming innocents. And eliminating ineffective security measures similarly requires no discussion.

The debate gets tricky — and this is where the intellectual dishonesty starts — when you have to make trade-offs between security and civil liberties. During the 2008 election campaign, candidate Barack Obama repeatedly argued that choosing between our values and our security is a false choice. In this, he was being unscientific. Whenever you are dealing with a foe that is hard to spot — whether it be a case of a rare but deadly flu or a would-be terrorist — there is always an inverse relationship between the number of false positives and the number of false negatives. Decreasing false positives tends to increase false negatives, and decreasing false negatives tends to increase false positives.

False positives are the innocent people we target during anti-terrorism measures, or patients who do not have a disease who get scanned, treated and exposed to side effects. False negatives are the terrorists who slip through, or the patients with real disease who go undetected. False negatives can have catastrophic consequences, but there are invariably many more false positives than false negatives, so the adverse consequences of false positives can sometimes be greater than the cost of false negatives. The recent call to scale back on screening for certain kinds of cancer is one example of how the toll of false positives can sometimes exceed the toll of false negatives.

When it comes to terrorism, a truly honest conversation would ask how many terrorist incidents a nation is willing to tolerate in order to maintain its highest values regarding civil liberties, or how many civil liberties it is willing to forsake in favor of security. The dishonesty lies in suggesting we can always reduce false positives and false negatives simultaneously: That is sometimes possible (when you develop a perfectly accurate and risk-free screening tool for terrrorism or disease) but more commonly you have to trade one off against the other.

Given the human penchant for wanting our cake and eating it, too, it isn’t surprising our national debate over terrorism falls into predictable and polarized camps, where each side demonizes the other’s views. Wouldn’t it be better to have an honest conversation about the costs of security, and the costs of civil liberties?

The Tunnel

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Early news reports suggest that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who attemped to bring down a Northwest Airlines plane in Detroit, went in search of Al Qaeda masterminds in Yemen. If the reports are accurate, this would mean Abdulmutallab was following a pattern established by several other suicide terrorists and would-be suicide terrorists. Rather than have terrorist masterminds reach out to young people in search of volunteers for suicide terrorist missions, what we see are young people who are already radicalized (and often from wealthy families, sometimes from Western countries) reaching out to terrorist masterminds for operational assistance. In The Tunnel, one of the chapters in The Hidden Brain, I explain the unconscious factors that prompt young people to become suicide terrorists. See also

The Club Model of Terrorism

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I wrote a column in the Washington Post some time ago exploring the work of Eli Berman and David Laitin, who argued that terrorist groups function much in the manner of exclusive country clubs. (OK, minus the wine and golf. Presumably.) Recent accounts about the five young men from Virginia who were apprehended in Pakistan as they sought to join Al Qaeda dramatizes this idea — the men appear to have been rejected by the terrorist group on the grounds that they did not have sufficient credentials.

The club model of terrorism explains why terrorist masterminds are rarely betrayed by fellow members in the group, who stand to gain enormous financial rewards by betraying their masters. Unlike book clubs and other associations that make it easy for people to join and easy to leave, exclusive clubs are difficult to join and have high dues that make it difficult to stay. New members are rarely admitted unless they are able to demonstrate extraordinary commitment — often over long periods of apprenticeship — or have deep family connections with existing members. Exclusive clubs therefore produce very different kinds of human behavior than associations that are easy to join and easy to quit. They produce intense bonds of loyalty and tend to be extremely insular. It is these relationships that set the stage for the small group dynamics that prompt people to carry out actions that seem insane, depraved or bizarre to those of us on the outside.

These ideas are discussed in greater detail in a chapter called “The Tunnel” in my upcoming book, The Hidden Brain.

Terrorism — the "telemarketer" model vs the "rock star" model

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The conventional model of terrorism suggests shadowy recruiters are spread around the world in search of young men and women who can be radicalized. In one of the chapters in my upcoming book, I discuss the problem in conceiving of terrorist masterminds as telemarketers who reach out to many people in the hopes that a few will “buy” the product (suicide terrorism) that is on offer. A much better model, I suggest, is the “rock star” model. No one goes out and recruits rock stars. Thousands of people dream of stardom and they go in search of fame and fortune. Terrorist masterminds do not go out in search of young men and women ready to kill themselves for a cause; it is young men and women who are ready to kill themselves for a cause who go out in search of terrorist masterminds.

Five young men from Virginia intent on jihad were recently apprehended in Pakistan, as they sought to join Al Qaeda. As this news article notes toward the end, recruiters are rarely in the business of radicalizing young recruits; they are mostly in the business of reviewing recruits who come to them fully radicalized.

The chapter in the book looks at the reasons so many young people seek out jihad through the unusual story of an American who signed up to be a suicide terrorist. I’m hoping it will help people and policy makers think about suicide terrorism in a new light, and allow us to pay closer attention to the evidence, rather than to our intuitions about what makes suicide terrorists tick.