The Hidden Brain | Shankar Vedantam

Summary of: The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives
By: Shankar Vedantam


Dive into the fascinating world of the unseen forces that shape our lives – the hidden brain. In the book summary of ‘The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives,’ we unearth how unconscious processes regulate social interactions and influence our judgments and decisions. From forming unconscious racial biases to affecting our political choices, the hidden brain’s significant impact goes unnoticed in our day-to-day lives. Embark on this journey to better understand how these invisible forces affect our perceptions, behaviors, and the way we view principles of equality, justice, and leadership.

The Power of the Hidden Brain

The hidden brain plays a significant role in determining our behavior, and evidence of its impact is all around us. The brain’s invisible forces continually influence our basic perceptions, making us respond to stimuli we may not even notice. Research by Melissa Bateson on a beverage station’s users in Newcastle showed that when users saw images of eyes, their contributions tripled compared to when they saw pictures of flowers. Similarly, psychologist Rick van Baaren’s research showed that when a waitress repeated a customer’s order verbatim, the customer gave a 140% larger tip than when she paraphrased it. These examples highlight how people respond positively when they feel in sync with each other, a response determined by their hidden brain. The key takeaway here is that even if we never feel ourselves being manipulated, the processes of the hidden brain are always at play.

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Hidden Brain

The hidden brain is an integral part of our lives that regulates our social behavior, yet we remain largely unaware of its power in our daily lives. Despite being unable to precisely comprehend how unconscious cognitive mechanisms work, experts have observed what happens to patients with conditions like frontotemporal dementia and schizophrenia. In the absence of the unconscious mind, patients with frontotemporal dementia lose the ability to form judgments and often end up in police custody for not following societal norms. Similarly, changes in the brain’s amygdala and prefrontal cortices in schizophrenia patients affect their ability to read facial expressions. As a result, they may experience paranoia and interpret even simple actions as hostile. The article emphasizes the importance of understanding the hidden brain and its impact on social behavior.

Unconscious Racial Bias

Humans are wired to recognize faces, but this evolutionary trait has led to unconscious racial biases. A study conducted in Montreal found that 70% of white children associated positive adjectives with white faces while associating negative adjectives with black faces. This bias exists because children are living in an overwhelmingly white world and are exposed to mostly white role models. It’s important for white parents to explicitly encourage racial tolerance through storytelling and discussion to combat these biases.

Political Affiliation and Unconscious Racial Bias

Unconscious racial bias has a significant impact on political affiliations in the United States. Even though many people deny being racist, they unconsciously form biases based on associative patterns. The American psychologist, Brian Nosek, created a map of the United States comparing unconscious biases with political affiliations and found that areas with higher racial biases tend to vote for Republican candidates. This is because of the party’s policies that are underscored by unconscious biases. Politicians often use unconscious bias to their advantage, as evident in the 1988 presidential election, where Republican candidate George H. W. Bush’s campaign circulated an ad featuring Willie Horton, exploiting unconscious racism of voters who associated Black people with crime. In contrast, Barack Obama downplayed racial injustice to appeal to the white audience, showing how darker skin color and addressing race more explicitly could have prevented him from being elected.

Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Racial Bias affects even the highest level of justice, according to Jennifer Eberhardt’s research. The researchers analyzed death penalty cases and found that those who were perceived as possessing stereotypically Black features were more likely to receive the death sentence. Ernest Porter’s case is an example of how the criminal justice system has racial prejudices that lead to unfair trials. The hidden brain creates racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and changing the system starts with admitting the biases.

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