Frequently Asked Questions about The Hidden Brain

What is the “hidden brain”?

The “hidden brain” is a term Shankar created to describe a range of influences that manipulate us without our awareness. Some aspects of the hidden brain have to do with mental shortcuts or heuristics, others are related to errors in the way memory and attention work. Some deal with social dynamics and relationships. What is common to them all is that we are unaware of them. There are some dimensions of the hidden brain that are accessible via introspection, but many areas that are sealed off from conscious awareness. The “hidden brain,” in other words, is a metaphor, much like the “selfish gene.” Just as there are no strands of DNA that shout, “Me first!” no part of the human brain is disguised under sunglasses and fedora. By drawing a simple line between mental activities we are aware of and mental activities we are not aware of, the “hidden brain” subsumes many concepts in wide circulation: the unconscious, the subconscious, the implicit.

Is The Hidden Brain a book about Freudian psychology?

Theories about the unconscious mind go back centuries. The findings Shankar describes in The Hidden Brain, however, are different from earlier accounts – including Freudian accounts – in that they are largely based on empirical findings. They are not based on intuitions, but data. Shankar appreciates many Freudian insights into the power of the unconscious, but parts ways with Freudian theories when the experimental evidence fails to provide support for such theories.

If bias is implicit or unconscious, does this mean people can no longer be held responsible for their actions?

The Hidden Brain is not a book that calls for an end to personal responsibility. Rather, it is a book that argues that we have fallen profoundly short in the realm of personal responsibility. The book shows how many of our central institutions – from our educational system to the criminal justice system, from politics to religious institutions – are shot through with unconscious biases. Multiple chapters describe the consequences our prejudices have on the lives of others. These biases may arise through innocuous and unconscious mechanisms in the brain, but they have very real consequences. Taking the hidden brain seriously means that we understand that several institutions need fundamantal reform, and that each of us needs to spend long hours staring in the mirror.

But if bias is unconscious, how can we know we are being biased?

There was a time in the United States not very long ago when vast numbers of people admitted to explicit bias against people from other groups. In many parts of the world, this is still the case today. However, virtually no one in America today admits – to take just one example – to being racially biased. Yet, in terms of behavior, we see powerful evidence of racial prejudice in American society. Controlled experiments, for example, reveal disparities and discrimination in many dimensions of professional life, from prosecutorial and sentencing decisions, to health disparities and job hiring. How do we square the existence of racial prejudice with the near-total denial of prejudice? The conventional explanation for this discrepancy is that people are lying. They secretly harbor racist beliefs, but do not admit them openly. This theory implies that discrimination comes about because of covert animosity. The Hidden Brain argues that this belief is not supported by the evidence. Most people might well be sincere when they report they are not prejudiced. However, it is also true that significant numbers of Americans – like people everywhere in the world – harbor unconscious prejudices. It is these biases, held by large numbers of people, that likely cause many of the biased outcomes we see. How can we tell if we are biased if we are not aware of it? The answer is, we need to look at the data, rather than trust what our intuitions tell us is in our hearts. It is the data that show us that the black infant mortality rate in the United States is one and a half times the white infant mortality rate. It is the data that show us that when you submit identical applications to companies, but place the photograph of a white person or a black person on the application, you get very different rates of interview calls. It is the data that show us that when plays are being evaluated for production, the sex of the playwright makes a difference in whether judges believe the play is worthy for production – because when the same play is submitted under a man’s name or a woman’s name, the judges come to different conclusions about the merits of the work. One of the great challenges posed by The Hidden Brain is the question of whether we are willing to accept personal responsibility for outcomes where we feel we are acting fair-mindedly, but the evidence shows we are acting in biased or prejudiced ways.