by Jessica Rettig

From suicide bombers to the average American voter, most humans believe their decisions are based on sound judgment and core values. Yet, according to Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam, much of everyday decision making is rooted in assumptions that lie outside the realm of awareness. In The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, Vedantam tells stories of lives changed for better or worse by choices influenced by the unconscious mind. Jessica Rettig recently interviewed Vedantam about why people must take responsibility for their unconscious biases and how Americans can work to overcome them. Excerpts:

What is the hidden brain?

It is the shorthand term I use to describe the range of influences and biases that affect how people function in everyday life. Some are actually accessible via introspection, if we try to get at them. And others are not. But at any given moment, the hidden brain refers to anything happening between our ears that we aren't aware of.

Your book suggests that many of our decisions are not as conscious as we think.

We think of ourselves as rational or aware creatures. And yet these unconscious influences have profound effects on our lives -- everything from how we form personal relationships to how we decide to tip a waiter to how we decide which president to vote for. It's a troubling idea.

What was going through the mind of the alleged Christmas Day bomber?

Suicide bombers essentially enter a tunnel whereby the conventional norms and values get systematically turned upside down. It becomes normative to strap a bomb to your chest and try and blow up a plane. You can't intervene with a suicide bomber by saying, "Look, this is not an appropriate thing to do," or "This is not normative."

So, should we blame people for their unconscious actions?

We are responsible for our actions regardless of where the impetus for those actions and behaviors comes from. The hidden brain supplies us with ideas, with context, with tugs, but we are the ones who are finally making decisions.

Your book suggests that the hidden brain is to blame for much of the prejudice in the country. How so?

If you ask most Americans today where they stand on matters of prejudice, nearly 100 percent of Americans will tell you they hold no overt hostility toward people from other groups. And yet when you look at a whole range of outcomes -- from who gets hired or fired to who ends up on death row to who gets elected president -- we find pervasive effects of bias.

How did the hidden brain play a role in Harry Reid's controversial racial comments in 2008?

What Harry Reid was saying was that skin tone and our manner of speaking have an effect on whether we're likely to succeed. And I think there's actually a very wide and broad range of studies which show that's absolutely the case. We wouldn't be surprised, for example, if Reid said that wealthy people have a leg up in politics. No one would say, "Stop the presses. That's astonishing!"

How was the hidden brain in play during the 2008 presidential election?

Female leaders, for example, are typically either perceived to be ruthless and conniving and heartless, or they can be perceived to be very warm and caring but incompetent. And if you look at the stereotypes that we conventionally attached to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, you will find exactly that those stereotypes match up very, very well. It alerts me that actually something else is probably afoot. Another example was in the question of race. In the book, I go into great detail about how the Obama campaign tried to neutralize this disadvantage.

How did it do that?

What the campaign did in a very, very systematic fashion was to take the issue of race off the table. Whenever the Obamas themselves, both Barack and Michelle, were questioned about it, they repeatedly drew attention to the fact that America's a tolerant nation, that Americans in some ways have transcended race. They gave voters a narrative to get around the issue.

Can people, then, escape their biases?

Well, I think people cannot necessarily escape their biases. From the point of view of the Obama campaign, the goal was not to eliminate bias in America. The goal was to get Barack Obama elected president. In some ways, they were able to take race off the table, but that doesn't mean that racism itself has disappeared.

How can your research help our decision making in the future?

One of the first things I'm trying to do with the book is try and convince people that there is much that is playing a role that we don't see. Having that insight doesn't automatically mean we can overcome those problems, but it's a very, very important first step.

Available at

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

The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House


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The Power of the Unconscious on Terrorism, Race and Politics | Jessica Rettig

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