Invisible forces that control our behavior have inspired our best storytellers, from Euripides to Steven Spielberg. Whether we’re yanked around by jealous gods, Oedipal urges or poltergeists, the idea that we feel powerless to direct our own actions has a visceral appeal, one exploited by Shankar Vedantam in “The Hidden Brain,” his exploration of the unconscious mind.
Most previous popular treatments of subliminal forces haven’t been data driven. Vedantam, who until recently wrote the Department of Human Behavior column for The Washington Post, hopes to fill that gap. His entertaining romp through covert influences on human behavior began as a series of columns, and true to its genesis, it reads as vivid reportage overlaid with a sampling of science. Ranging widely from the role of social conformity in violence to snapshots of racial and gender prejudice, Vedantam draws expansive arcs between findings from social psychology and the nation’s sensibilities and voting patterns. “Unconscious bias reaches into every corner of your life,” he writes, thanks to a “hidden brain” generally inaccessible through introspection. As with crop circles, all we see are the traces left by covert attitudes, never the perp at the scene of the crime.
Colorful characters form the backbone of the narrative; we meet a bickering, long-married academic couple, a rapist with great teeth, a woman working the night shift at a tire factory, a woman suffering from a rare form of dementia and a cult member. What binds this motley crew together? All are victims of some form of irrationality — those imperceptible forces that often prompt our actions in the real world, the ones that are at odds with our ideals.
Most of us assume that honesty and generosity are personality traits polished over a lifetime of social interaction. But Vedantam shows how imperceptible social signals determine, for example, how deeply you’ll dig into your pocket. In offices with an honor system for coffee, people are more likely to pay on days when a photograph of human eyes is discreetly posted above the coffee machine, according to one British study. They’re more prone to cheat if a still life of daisies is pasted there instead — even if they say they’re unaware of either picture. Another experiment demonstrates that you’re likely to give a handsome tip to a waiter who repeats your food order verbatim. In fact, you’ll tip an average of 140 percent more than you would if he just paraphrases it. It’s all about social mimicry, apparently, our hidden ability to sync our behavior with the group’s.
While social cues grease the wheels of interaction in subtle ways, they can also create hazards. In a gripping chapter on disasters, Vedantam describes the snap decisions made by employees of one brokerage firm in the south tower of the World Trade Center in the crucial minutes after the first plane hit on Sept. 11. The group on the 89th floor reached the consensus that they were not in danger — and perished. The group on the 88th floor ran for the stairs and survived. While everyone felt they were making autonomous decisions, the decisions were really made by the group. “Group decisions provide us with a signal,” Vedantam writes. “The details about individuals — who did what, who felt what, who thought what — is noise.” He cites another analysis, of response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in which two different groups escaped at different rates. What mattered wasn’t what floor the groups were on but how large they were. “Groups seek to develop a shared narrative as an explanation for what is happening,” Vedantam writes. “The larger the group, the longer it took to arrive at a consensus.” His conclusion? “People can undermine themselves — and reduce the overall survival rate — by trying to help one another.”
The crisis vignettes are skillfully spun out, Grisham style. Vedantam presents a fresh, bracing case for the dangers of group-think. But he sometimes extends his lessons too far. While Vedantam is right that large groups tend to produce fewer good Samaritans, studies of social networks show they can also mobilize quite effectively. After Hurricane Katrina, an impromptu “Cajun navy” rescued thousands of stranded residents. And a number of sociologists have documented how hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 by another spontaneous armada.
In a chapter on the psychology of suicide bombers, Vedantam draws parallels among obsessed sports fans, a Jonestown crackpot, violent extremists and striving executives. “The hidden brain’s drive for approval and meaning, and the ability of small groups to confer such approval and meaning, is what is common to the world of” all four, he writes. Social “tunnels,” which block out input from the outside world, direct some people toward public service and heroism, others toward violence.
True, we all want to belong. But the evidence Vedantam offers for his claims is often too scant or streamlined, with contradictory or ambiguous results and dissenting interpretations left out. Meanwhile, the biggest bias of all — confirmation bias, which makes us notice only what supports our own opinions and tune out everything else — hardly gets a mention. All this secret stuff can be very disconcerting. But we need more than we get here to know if it is true.
Washington Post: Review by Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac and other books
Philadelphia Inquirer: Gary Stix calls Vedantam “a natural storyteller.” What your brain knows that you don’t.
Salon.com Thomas Rogers interviews the author for a piece titled The Hidden Brain: Behind Your Secret Racism
Daily Beast: This Week’s Hot Reads calls The Hidden Brain “gripping”
“Freud may have been the first to bring the unconscious to our attention, but the latest work from longtime Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam reminds us just how pervasive The Hidden Brain is … Vedantam’s theory is particularly gripping when he parallels different responses to emergency situations.”
Science News: Erika Engelhaupt’s review says The Hidden Brain’s “compelling narrative pulls readers along”
AMAZON: “An educational, entertaining, and an excellent book in every aspect.”
Vedantam, an accomplished science journalist, combines an exceptional story telling talent with modern psychology research to explore seemingly intractable questions, including why very young children exhibit racial preferences, how peaceful, professional family people become suicide bombers, and why smart and accomplished people make obviously dumb and even self-destructive decisions. The big lesson of this book is that people are powerfully influenced by things that they never consciously register.
Using engaging and absorbing case studies, Vedantam presents a theory about a second, hidden brain, which the human species developed through evolution. This hidden brain specializes in rapid analysis, kicks into action under certain conditions, and it often acts contrary to our own beliefs or common sense. Its danger is in that it is hard and often impossible for us to realize when we act according to our beliefs and when – according to our hidden brain. The central feature of unconscious bias is that we are not aware of it, so it’s able to powerfully manipulate the conscious mind to act against its own will.
Here is an example of Vedantam’s numerous and powerful analogies: “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot function on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention.”
An educational, entertaining, and an excellent book in every aspect.
Washington Read: January 2010
What We’re Reading This Month
by Drew Bratcher
One of the most compelling stories in Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain is about an incident that happened 15 years ago on the bridge between Belle Isle park and downtown Detroit. One hot summer night, a man dragged a woman through a station-wagon window and beat her bloody. Fleeing as he came at her with a tire iron, she leapt to her death in the rapids below. Dozens witnessed the assault, which lasted a half hour, but as if auditioning for roles in Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, no one came to the woman’s rescue while she was being attacked.
To make sense of this episode and other puzzling human behaviors—from how educated individuals become suicide bombers to why a stranded puppy yanks our heartstrings more than genocide does—Vedantam began scouring a new field of psychological research that links our action, and inaction, to an array of unconscious influences, what Vedantam calls “the hidden brain.” The result is a fascinating piece of explanatory reportage, in the tradition of Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, that has the capacity to sway public policy and spawn a popular franchise. Vedantam, a Washington Post science columnist, is set to turn the idea into a blog for Psychology Today.
“A smart and engaging exploration of the science behind the headlines from one of America’s best science journalists. Don’t miss it.”
– Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
“The book addresses the madness and beauty of our struggles to create a moral and just world.”
– Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day
A disturbing but enlightening look at the power of the unconscious over human action and decision-making. Why did virtually everyone on the 88th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center survive on 9/11, while almost all of those on the 89th floor perished? Washington Post behavior columnist Vedantam uses that question to demonstrate how even the strongest willed can be subject to their unconscious minds. Sometimes this agency is for the good; often, however, our unconscious biases lead us into error. Shunning Freudian interpretation for more recent, evidence-based science,
Vedantam cites studies in the United States, Canada and Europe that demonstrate how people are easily misled into acting on biases they would be shocked to learn they had. An honor box in a British office’s coffee room fills faster when a printed request for contributions is accompanied by a pair of watchful eyes. More harmful, people tend to rate the intelligence or competence of a total stranger downward when they are merely proximate to—not necessarily interacting with—an overweight person. Transsexuals who become men improve their lot while those who become women suffer economically and socially, all other aspects of their personalities remaining equal. School children of all races persist in applying positive attributes to white strangers and negative ones to people of color. These studies, Vedantam says, point out the tendency of humans to be ruled by the oceanic portion of our mind that keep us functioning in a complex world, while the conscious mind attends to only what it needs to—shockingly little in comparison. A tour into dark realms of the psyche by a personable guide.
A Washington Post science writer, Vedantam explores the findings of social psychologists about unconscious bias. Recounting people’s stories, he grips attention immediately. Introducing a rape victim whose mistake in identifying her assailant was revealed by DNA evidence that exonerated him, Vedantam establishes his theme of how people get things wrong (in the crime-and-punishment category, he adds death-penalty cases involving possible misidentification) or behave seemingly irrationally. After each individual story, the author repairs to relevant psychological studies. To Vedantam, the studies reveal that subtle biases unconsciously coexist alongside people’s conscious convictions that they are free of prejudice. He cites examples such as Senator George Allen, whose racial remark ended his career; the electorate’s perception of candidate Barack Obama; and the sexual discrimination case of Lilly Ledbetter. Branching into other arenas, such as crowd behavior during crisis situations and the minds of suicide bombers, Vedantam highlights a mental battle of which, he wants his readers to learn, they are largely unaware. This work has strong appeal for the psychology audience.
— Gilbert Taylor