3 years

mind games

“We can’t disable our hidden brain”

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Author Shankar Vedantam on the mental prejudice-graph which kicks in as early as age three, how it influences stock markets and why it turns some into suicide bombers.

I think, so I am. Is that foundational sentence too skimpy to explain the full sense of our self? A book recently released in the US might make you say, “I think, so I am maybe racist, sexist, or both.” As did Bangalore-born and Harvard-based Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. In a telephonic interview from his home in Boston, Vedantam spoke to Open about the prejudice-graph which kicks in as early as age three.

Q What is the hidden brain? How does it exert its collective tug on capital markets, a presidential race and the theatre of war?

A I used the term ‘hidden brain’ as a metaphor to describe a large range of human behaviour affecting moods, romantic relationships and judgments. All this happens without us knowing it. There are dimensions of the hidden brain that are sealed off from introspection. For instance, while studying the New York Stock Exchange, researchers found that among new investors, stocks with easy-to-pronounce names outperform those with difficult-to-pronounce names. Pronounceability has nothing to do with capital investments. But investors use heuristics, mental shortcuts. In this case, ease of pronunciation, to make their decisions. Yet none of them were conscious about this.

Q On 9/11, how did the hidden brain help people on the 88th floor of the World Trade Tower survive? Why did the same principle, group-think, lead to deaths on the 89th floor?

A In the crucial minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, there were 16 minutes before the second plane struck the South Tower. People here had a choice to exit the building based on what they were seeing before them. The group on the 89th floor reached a consensus that they were not in danger, stayed there and died. The employees at a finance company 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. The outcomes were based on group decisions. This does not illustrate correct or incorrect choices but how we are powerfully influenced by those around us.

Q Why is it that we, even the most aware, can’t disable racist and sexist prejudices?

A The hidden brain plays a useful role in life. It helps us negotiate the world in a way without which we’d be lost. The problem is that since birth, our unconscious mind is constantly noticing who drives nice cars, who lives in nice houses and concluding there must be something about them that causes entitlement. This is pervasive, in that even when we hire and fire people these unconscious preferences operate. And because it is hidden from us, we aren’t quite conscious of what we are doing and able to disable it.

Q What separates the hidden brain from Freudian unconsciousness and the subconscious?

A Theories about the unconscious mind go back centuries. The findings I describe in The Hidden Brain, however, are different from earlier accounts—including Freudian—in that they are largely based on evidence. They are not based on intuitions, but data. As a science journalist, I am attracted to research that explores complex social behaviour 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.

Q Tell us about what went on subliminally in the 2008 presidential race. The campaign carefully sidestepped hard race issues, yet Obama did get elected.

A I think there should be no ‘yet’, but a ‘because’ in your question. Many Black politicians who had come before him made race central to their campaign. Americans were uncomfortable about this. Obama was very skillful in sidestepping the question of his race; he kept it off the table. He was not always successful at sidestepping it, but he was far more successful than the others. He always said we have moved beyond race. Obama was able to get people to introspect.

Q You say toddlers as early as three have race and colour prejudices, where fair faces equal good and dark faces equal cruel. How are you and your four-year-old daughter dealing with embedded biases?

A When my daughter turned three she would play this game, doctor, with me. I could be doctor but she would not let me be nurse. I asked her why and she’d say “because that is not the way it is in the stories”. I realised I had read her dozens of stories where the nurse was depicted as a woman. I was not trying to teach her anything sexist, nor were the authors of the books doing so, but in her unconscious mind she believed that women are supposed to be nurses even though many men in America are nurses actually. So when I was reading to her, she was absorbing ideas and lessons that were often wrong, which became the way she sees the world. She did not have the sophistication to know better.

I choose books more carefully now, because these associations stay with us for a long time. We carry them into adulthood. While making a decision during an emergency at a hospital, my friends met a woman and assumed she was a nurse, when she was actually the head surgeon. This was offensive, both at a personal and professional level, for the head surgeon.

Q What are ‘social tunnels’? Those spaces which ordinary people enter only to exit as terrorists?

A One of the chapters of the book looks at suicide terrorists. We tend to think of them as religious fanatics, as different from us, as a historical phenomenon starting from the kamikaze, right to the LTTE and the jihadists. It turns out that religion is not necessarily a sufficient condition. Many of them turn out to be secular.

What is common to all of them is the tunnel when you are cut off from other points of view. Here you are fed a diet of information and you are not allowed to receive any contrary information within small groups. Human beings care intensely about those around them and when this small group becomes their entire universe, you can invert norms of what is normal. Within the tunnel, the aspirational behaviour of a suicide bomber has many people desperately wanting to be first in the line rather than the last. In the book I have tracked the evolution of a pacifist becoming a bomber. The capacity to be this person lies not in all but in many of us.

Q Who would have thought the hidden brain could impact us so…

A It does. Right from stock markets, as I mentioned, to what treatment the doctor will prescribe to a juror in a justice trial.

Q That’s why India disabled the juror system after the Nanavati case.

A Disabling the jury does not get around a judge’s mind. The fact that you are smart and educated does not mean you do not have a hidden brain. I am on a fellowship at Harvard, where there was a study done on the unconscious attitudes of the top doctors of the country. It showed how they offered different treatments to White and Black people, while dealing with chest and heart problems. These were not bad doctors, they were not trying to harm anyone, they had no explicit bias, but they were human and prey to their unconscious.

Q Now that we know how the hidden brain can hinder humanity, just how do we rewire ourselves and the society we live in?

A I am not sure we can rewire ourselves. Even if you know about the unconscious mind, you can’t snap your fingers and change it. The biggest weapon we have is our conscious mind. When we know we are treating people differently because of race hostilities, we can set up procedures and protocol to ensure similar care is given to all. A judge can be directed to follow stricter guidelines… The consequences of the hidden brain are not trivial. Right from the criminal justice system, education system, the hidden brain affects the lives of millions. We need to take this seriously. Fundamental reform is essential.