What is the “hidden brain”?
The “hidden brain” is a term I created to describe a range of influences that manipulate us without our awareness. Some aspects of the hidden brain have to do with the pervasive problem of mental shortcuts or heuristics, others are related to errors in the way memory and attention work. Some deal with social dynamics and relationships. What is common to them all is that we are unaware of them. There are dimensions of the hidden brain where, with effort, we can become aware of our biases, but there are many aspects of the hidden brain that are permanently sealed off from introspection. Unconscious bias is not caused by a secret puppeteer who sits inside our heads, but the effects of bias are as though such a puppeteer exists. The “hidden brain,” in other words, is a metaphor, much like the “selfish gene.” Just as there are no strands of DNA that shout, “Me first!” no part of the human brain is disguised under sunglasses and fedora. By drawing a simple line between mental activities we are aware of and mental activities we are not aware of, the “hidden brain” subsumes many concepts in wide circulation whose definitions are frequently the subject of dissension: the unconscious, the subconscious, the implicit.
Is this a book about Freudian psychology?
Theories about the unconscious mind go back centuries. The findings I describe in The Hidden Brain, however, are different from earlier accounts – including Freudian accounts – in that they are largely based on measurable evidence. Most of the findings are derived from controlled experiments. They are not based on intuitions, but data. As a science journalist, I find myself attracted to research that explores complex social behavior using the tools of rigorous science. I applaud Freud’s many insights into the power of the unconscious in everyday life, but part ways with Freudian theories when the experimental and empirical evidence fails to provide support for such theories.
If bias is unconscious, does this mean people can no longer be held responsible for their actions?
The Hidden Brain is not a book that calls for an end to personal responsibility. Rather, it is a book that argues that we have fallen profoundly short in the realm of personal responsibility. The book shows how many of our central institutions – from our educational system to the criminal justice system, from politics to religious institutions – are shot through with unconscious bias. Multiple chapters describe the consequences our prejudices have on the lives of others. These biases may arise through innocuous and unconscious mechanisms in the brain, but they have very real consequences. To take the hidden brain seriously is to take seriously the idea that many of our institutions need fundamantal reform, and that each of us needs to spend long hours staring in the mirror.
For a more detailed analysis of this issue, please read this blog posting about former Gov. George Allen’s infamous “macaca” comment.
But if bias is unconscious, how can we know we are being biased?
There was a time in the United States not very long ago when vast numbers of people admitted to explicit bias against people from other groups. In many parts of the world, this is still the case today. However, virtually no one in America today admits – to take just one example – to being racially biased. Yet, in terms of behavior, we see powerful evidence of racial prejudice in American society. Controlled experiments, for example, reveal disparities and discrimination in many dimensions of professional life, from prosecutorial and sentencing decisions, to health disparities and job hiring. How do we square the existence of racial prejudice with the near-total denial of prejudice? The conventional explanation for this discrepancy is that people are lying. They secretly harbor racist beliefs, but do not admit them openly. This theory implies that discrimination comes about because of covert animosity. I do not believe this is true, and I do not believe this theory is supported by the evidence. I believe most people are being sincere when they report they are not prejudiced. At the very least, I think it is true that most people do not want to be prejudiced. However, it is also true that significant numbers of Americans – and significant numbers of people everywhere in the world – harbor unconscious prejudice. It is unconscious prejudice that causes many of the biased outcomes we see, not conscious prejudice. How can we tell if we are biased if we are not aware of it? The answer is, we need to look at the data, rather than trust what our intuitions tell us is in our hearts. It is the data that show us that the black infant mortality rate in the United States is one and a half times the white infant mortality rate. It is the data that show us that when you submit identical applications to companies, but place the photograph of a white person or a black person on the application, you get very different rates of interview calls. It is the data that show us that when plays are being evaluated for production, the sex of the playwright makes a difference in whether judges believe the play is worthy for production – because when the same play is submitted under a man’s name or a woman’s name, the judges come to different conclusions about the merits of the work. One of the great challenges posed by The Hidden Brain is the question of whether we are willing to accept personal responsibility for outcomes where we feel we are acting fair-mindedly, but the evidence shows we are acting in biased or prejudiced ways.
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