Maybe you think you’re reasonable. Shankar Vedantam thinks maybe your're not. In the book, The HIdden Brain, he explores how we often think we're making rational decisions—when in fact, we are following our unconscious biases.
Vedantam's term “hidden brain” describes mental processes which affect our behavior without our conscious awareness of their influence. These result from errors in attention and memory; mental shortcuts we form and follow; relationships and social dynamics.
In some cases, it’s possible to train ourselves to identify and become aware of these hidden influences. In other cases, the influences remain hidden. American society however operates as if human behavior is primarily based on reason.
Vedantam presents an example involving a rape conviction based on false identification. The woman, who identified the wrong man as her rapist, became convinced of his guilt while she was praying in church. Initially uncertain, her doubts dissolved in the safety of her church.
Emotions can affect our memories and convictions — and that’s what happened in this case. After DNA evidence had proved his innocence, the woman met the man. Upon meeting him, the first thing she noticed convinced her that she’d been wrong.
Vedantam discusses how social scientists test for racial bias—and find it even among those who claim to be unprejudiced. We believe we live in a fair society, yet experimental evidence shows that people tend to recommend the harshest penalties to those whose skin is darkest.
Sexual bias is common as well. Transgender individuals report receiving greater respect and higher salaries when they change from women to men. The opposite is reported by those who change from men to women.
Our “hidden brain” is useful because it helps us make decisions quickly. However, those decisions are not always correct. By becoming more aware about how the hidden brain works, we can begin to make better decisions both as individuals and as societies.