The Hidden Brain

I think the first thing to say about The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam is that this is not "new knowledge." This information has been talked about many times before, in many ways. What Mr. Vedantam does is helps to bring the material to a wider audience by presenting the knowledge in the form of comfortable stories and anecdotes that a US-centric audience will find meaningful. So for individuals who fall into this target audience - don't know a lot about unconscious bias, live in the US - this could be a great introduction to the topic.

The gist of The Hidden Brain is that, as much as we think we make logical choices, we are really driven by underlying emotional reactions which we then rationalize. We "feel" comfortable or uncomfortable with something and then we find a way to explain how to make it work in our world view.

The first example Mr. Vedantam provides is one that requires careful thought - a rape victim who misidentifies her rapist despite her very best attempts to memorize his face. She *thinks* she has made the right ID, but something nags at her. She feels uncomfortable. Finally she goes to a church to soothe herself and now she feels comfortable, so she accepts her ID. She is at peace with it. Over a decade later, she realizes to her chagrin that she'd been wrong - that her discomfort was because of a real disconnect between this innocent man and her mental map. She had in essence "turned off the fire alarm" in her head by self-soothing away the discomfort at the church. She should have heeded it, and made that extra effort to really check out the man she was accusing. If she had, she'd have seen very quickly that he was not the man who had assaulted her. The mistaken ID not only put an innocent man away for over a decade, but allowed the real rapist to go free and perhaps rape others.

Mr. Vedantam explains how this same internal comfort / discomfort drives many choices we make in life. It's already been demonstrated by many studies that an overweight job applicant is routinely considered less professional / less suitable than an exactly matching but lighter counterpart. However, did you know that there mere fact that an applicant is *sitting next to* an overweight person in the waiting room of the interview can create a bias against him? Interviewers would swear there was no such bias - but the studies find that their "rational" choices of how to rate applicants are being affected by this hidden bias.

He talks about a fascinating experiment where workers used a honor system to pay for office goodies. Every week the photo by the "price sheet" was changed. When the image was of flowers, few workers paid. When it was a pair of eyes staring at them, they paid! Seven times as often! When the workers were asked about the pictures, they didn't even remember seeing the pictures. However, they *reacted* to them. And then they felt they had completely rational reasons as to why they paid or didn't pay, to explain their actions. They had no idea they'd been "biased" into it.

Another example. A waitress was friendly and wrote down all her orders diligently. Service was flawless. The only difference in how she treated her clients was that with half she exactly mirrored their order. If they said "One beer" she repeated back "one beer" when she wrote it down. For the other half of customers she repeated back an almost exact match but not exactly matching word. So for "one burger" she might say "a hamburger". If she exactly mimiced she got 140% the tip amount, with just that one change. The diners felt their tips were spot on for rational reasons.

These unconscious biases can have both positive and negative effects. If you're in a field - say soccer - and a stranger is amazingly good in that field, you enjoy watching their skill. If you've got a friend who's in a *different* field - say they're a painter - you can be very proud of their painting skill. However, if a friend or family member suddenly takes an interest in *your* field and then does really well in it, it is much more common to have a mixed emotion reaction. Their triumphs now can trigger both happy and unhappy emotions.

Mr. Vedantam also talks about how biases can act differently if an issue is small scale vs large scale. He talks about how a lost puppy on a tanker on the ocean elicited tens of thousands of dollars in donations. People all around the world wanted to save this puppy. However, as we know, about 4 million animals are euthanized in shelters in the US alone each year. Where is the public outcry for them? We connect with a single lost puppy, but we tune out when the numbers grow more large.

One study had participants pretend to run a charity foundation. They could take on one of two projects. They could work on one disease where they could save 10,000 out of 15,000 victims a year. Or they would work on another disease where they could save 20,000 of 290,000 victims a year. The study participants tended to go for the first group, even though the total number of saved lives was smaller. They felt they were making the "biggest difference."

So there's a lot of fascinating information in here - I'm only listing a few of the many studies and stories being told in the book. Why do I give it only 4 stars? Well, first, the book is extremely biased towards a US audience, talking about the Obama election at length, talking about Jonestown at length, and other topics that US readers would be interested in but which might not have the same meaning for other groups. Even more than that, Mr. Vedantam takes very specific stances on some of these issues, like gun control, which are demonstrated in the way he presents facts. For example he emphasizes that guns are often used in domestic disputes, for example, but doesn't even talk about how in the US alone 4 million women are beaten or abused each year. Maybe the use of guns is helping women defend themselves from larger, stronger men, which I would posit is a GOOD thing. It would be like complaining "This is bad - 5,000 women shot their husbands, we have to put an end to this" when the real problem is that 2 million husbands were routinely beating and raping their wives and that 5,000 of them tried to defend themselves. So there are many cases where he presents "his" side of the issue as if it is the only one.

Also, the book weaves from personal anecdote to research study to personal reactions and back again. It's not always clear exactly what's being presented as a result from a study and what it the author's point of view. I can imagine that some readers would simply take everything that's in here as a researched, studied truth with no other option. Many of the issues talked about in here are still being researched and refined. I do absolutely believe that there are biases within all of us, but I still think we should take what we read with a grain of salt and look for other angles as to causes and results.

Still, again, a great, easy-to-read introduction to the topic for a group who might not have touched on this information before, and as such I recommend it.

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