but you are not.
For readers of this blog, this worry may signal a familiar theme: the extent to which unconscious biases can be completely outside the awareness of well intentioned people while still leading them to act. And now there’s a good book by a leading science journalist, Shankar Vedantam, called The Hidden Brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars and save lives, which takes a good look at what we know about unconscious biases and the ills they can cause.
There’s a very common theoretical position behind the kind of mainline research he is looking at: at almost every moment of your waking life you are in charge of a large jointed physical object – one with jiggly bits – that you have to negotiate safely through a very complex physical environment and an exceptional and fairly unique social environment. Your world is full of information and you need to pick up tons of it, from the fact that the pavement beneath the two little platform this object is positioned on to the emotional reactions of the people you are talking to. And if you get some of it wrong, you might be in big trouble, from a damaging fall or a lost love interest.
How do you cope? You could not cope with all this consciously, so an enormous amount is taken care of by your extraordinary brain. You get the results, but you do not get the input and you are most often not aware of the selection process or what in the environment is tilting that process.
And Hume was really right: your mind picks up the patterns in the world and anticipates their continuing.
Just from this, you can see there’s a huge downside. If someone doesn’t act in accord with those patterns, your reaction can be very negative in ways you find it hard to justify rationally. Your brain is conservative, one could say, though if you are reading this, you probably are not. Others can figure out how to manipulate the brain in ways you will almost certainly not notice. In fact, it becomes not so surprising that you feel sure you are doing the honorable and wise thing, while you are not.
Malcolm Gladwell talked a bit about the unconscious mind in Blink, but the present book is much more focus on the area and at least some of the ways in which the brain is guiding decisions and actions you would not approve of if you really got what’s going on.
It may not be a book for academics in the relevant field unless you enjoy quick gossipy reads that includes stuff about an academic couple in trouble (all my idea of fun, I have to say). But for all of us who are not engaged in the experimental background, it’s got a lot to think about.
In addition, there’s a very valuable discussion of it on Salon, brought to our attention by Mr. Jender. It gives you a bit of a sense of the book and, even more importantly, it raises the MORAL ISSUES! Given that most of us are more inclined toward racist and sexist actions than we think, how should we judge our moral responsibility for such actions? And how about those of others? It’s pretty awful to think that society’s attitudes result in poor health care for minorities (or overweight people), but the attitudes are ours, for goodness’ sake, even if we do not want to own them.
(Thanks to Jender, Mr Jender, and AB who also sent us this link.)
So have a think and let us know what you think about moral responsibility and things like that…