Suicide Terrorism

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.

Wisconsin Public Radio Interview: Can we live without a hidden brain?

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A new interview explores what happens to people when they are deprived of their hidden brains.

Much of The Hidden Brain is about the problems that unconscious factors create in our lives — from the vagaries in our moral judgment to the ways in which suicide bombers are indoctrinated. A natural conclusion from these examples is that we would be much better off without the hidden brain. This idea turns out to be impractical, and also fails to account for the many positive things the hidden brain does for us each day.

In a chapter called Tracking the Hidden Brain (watch a video introduction to it here) I show what happens to a middle-aged woman in Canada who loses a part of her hidden brain — a disorder robs her of subtle mental skills that she needs to function in social settings. She not only loses the ability to relate in appropriate ways to her family and to her friends, but also develops a host of unusual behaviors that puzzle the people who know and love her best.

You can listen to the interview here.

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

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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.

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.

New Amazon Reviews

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There are more reader reviews of The Hidden Brain on Amazon See

Dr Yuval Lirov: 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.

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