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

December 1, 2011

This is the latest in a series of Malcolm-Gladwell-esque pop psychology books about the mysteries of human behavior, illustrated by a blend of interesting anecdotes and scientific research (see Blink, Freakonomics, and How We Decide). According to Vedantam, our behavior is controlled by different parts of our brain. Our conscious brain handles novel experiences, which require a greater level of analysis and comprehension. The hidden brain, on the other hand, is designed to make fast, instinctual decisions and is therefore best suited to handle familiar or routine experiences. Vendantam’s central premise is that our hidden brain holds much more sway over us than we believe.

That much of our behavior is controlled by our unconscious mind is not a new idea. And, in fact, much of the material Vedantam covers is well-trod ground. Our deep-seeded prejudice toward people of color (even by people of color), the bias of selecting men over women for positions of power (both in the corporate setting as well as politics) as well as other societal biases have been studied and proven time and again, so while well-intentioned and important, the exploration here offers little new.

Where the exploration of the “hidden brain” gets more interesting is in some of the newer cases. Vedantam shows how our instinctual reaction when faced with a crisis in a group situation is to form a consensus with that group before acting, often to our detriment.  On September 11, 2001, after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, nearly everyone on the 88th floor of the Tower II decided to evacuate while their coworkers one floor above them decided to stay. What factors shaped those decisions?

When confronted with questions of racism and xenophobia, how did the 2008 Obama campaign address the issue without really addressing it? How are suicide bombers convinced to give up their lives for their cause? (Counter to common belief, it has less to do with religious zealotry and more to do with the forces that motivate Marines, cops and firefighters.) Why do people feel safer having a handgun in the house despite the fact that all statistical evidence indicates that it actually increases the chance of dying violently?

The benefit of knowing that we have these hard-wired biases is that we might be able to better compensate for them, or at the very least realize that our decisions are not as rational as we’d like to think. But like similar books, the real intrigue here is in the specific cases, and some are more interesting than others. Vendantam does a good job of presenting cases that make different points about how our hidden brains work rather than reinforcing the same point with different stories. Overall, he gives a pretty interesting, if not always completely persuasive or focused, look at how our decisions, societal attitudes and culture are shaped by forces that lie hidden below the surface of our minds.

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