After making a silly mistake, it's not uncommon for a person to say, "Oops — I was on autopilot." In his new book, The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam explains how there's actually a lot of truth to that.
Our brains have two modes, he tells NPR's Steve Inkseep — conscious and unconscious, pilot and autopilot — and we are constantly switching back and forth between the two.
"The problem arises when we [switch] without our awareness," Vedantam says, "and the autopilot ends up flying the plane, when we should be flying the plane."
The autopilot mode can be useful when we're multitasking, but it can also lead us to make unsupported snap judgments about people in the world around us. Vedantam says that when we interact with people from different backgrounds in high-pressure situations, it's easy to rely — unconsciously — on heuristics.
Racial categorization begins at an extremely early age. Vedantam cites research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes.
"Now, these were children who are 3 years old," Vedantam says. "It is especially hard to call them bigots, or to suggest that they are explicitly racially biased or have animosity in their hearts."
Vedantam says the mind is hard-wired to "form associations between people and concepts." But he thinks that the links the children made between particular groups and particular concepts were not biologically based — those judgments came from culture and upbringing.
"We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them," Vedantam says — but the unconscious messages are actually far more influential.
He says that for every 50 times a year a teacher talks about tolerance, there are many hundreds of implicit messages of racial bias that children absorb through culture — whether it's television, books or the attitudes of the adults and kids around them.
"And it's these hidden associations that essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children," Vedantam says.
'Take Back The Controls'
In American society, colorblindness is often held up as the ideal. And though it's a worthy aspiration, Vedantam says it's a goal that isn't rooted in psychological reality.
"Our hidden brains will always recognize people's races, and they will do so from a very, very young age," Vedantam says. "The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways."
Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it's not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, The Hidden Brain, is about how to "take back the controls."
So if the human psyche is just a big constellation of conscious and unconscious cognition — which thoughts represent the real you?
"Most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures," Vedantam says. "I know that I think of myself that way: I know why I like this movie star, or why I voted for this president, or why I prefer this political party to that."
But doing research for this book changed all that, Vedantam says.
"I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself. And it may well be that the hidden brain is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious mind's intentions."
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ARI SHAPIRO, host:
You may think you know why you voted for one candidate instead of another for president.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You may think you know why you invested in one stock or another.
SHAPIRO: You think you know, but the writer and journalist Shankar Vedantam is not as sure.
INSKEEP: He says that your hidden brain may be more responsible for these things than you realize. "The Hidden Brain" is the name of his new book. Vedantam uses that term for the way that your brain makes many decisions and judgments while you are not consciously thinking.
Mr. SHANKAR VEDANTAM (Writer, "The Hidden Brain"): Our conscious mind is the pilot of the plane, and the hidden brain is the autopilot function of the plane or the co-pilot function of the plane. And we transfer functions back and forth all the time between the pilot and the autopilot. The problem arises when we do this without our awareness, and the autopilot ends up flying the plane, when we should be flying the plane.
INSKEEP: So you argue that some of the hidden brain is simply the functions that we learn. We learn to do them in a way that makes sense, that is coherent to our minds, so that we can multi-task, say, so we could drive while listening to the radio. But you also suggest that some of these same mental functions play into serious social situations and how we see the world and how we see people around us.
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve. So much of the book focuses on the problems that the hidden brain causes in our everyday lives, and one of those central areas lies in our judgments about other people, especially people who come from backgrounds different from us, and especially in situations involving high pressure.
INSKEEP: You're talking about race here and ethnicity?
Mr. VEDANTAM: Race is one dimension of where the hidden brain plays a very powerful role, but it's one of many.
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting, though, that on some occasions, if I'm a white guy, that I may see you - an Indian-American or an African-American or a woman, or any number of different kinds of people - and make instant judgments about what kind of a person they are without even realizing that I'm doing this?
Mr. VEDANTAM: That's exactly what I'm saying, Steve.
INSKEEP: At what age, according to the research that you've done, do people begin to make distinctions based on race?
Mr. VEDANTAM: The research shows that the ability to start making these distinctions arises pretty much as early as researchers are able to study it. Researchers have looked as far back as children who are three years old, and what they tell us is that they have already begun to categorize the world.
INSKEEP: What did you learn looking at the results of some research from a daycare center in Canada?
Mr. VEDANTAM: There were several interesting experiments conducted at daycare centers in Montreal by a researcher called Francis Aboud, who found that children as young as three - these were studies of predominantly black and white children - that these children were categorizing faces according to race, according to whether they were good or bad, or clean or dirty, or cruel or kind, and invariably coming to the conclusion that white faces - whether white men or white women or white children - had positive attributes and black children had negative attributes. Now, these were children who are three years old. It's very difficult to call them bigots or to suggest that they are explicitly racially bias or have animosity in their hearts.
INSKEEP: Were they wired that way at birth, or were they learning something without realizing what they were learning?
Mr. VEDANTAM: I think the mind is, indeed, wired to form associations between people and concepts. I think that is true. But the fact that the associations that these children had connected particular groups to particular contexts does not come from biology. I believe it comes from culture. It comes from upbringing.
So to take one example, these children have probably seen hundreds of heterosexual couples and have formed associations that heterosexuality is the norm, because most of the families they see around them are heterosexuals. It's not that they don't see gays and lesbians living together as families, but because the hidden brain is a dumb system, because it forms these very quick associations based mostly on blind repetition, the hidden brains of these children come to think of heterosexuality as being normative, that is someone is not heterosexual, there must be something wrong with them. The overwhelming force of the cultural message is that certain things are normative and other things are not.
INSKEEP: What about black and white? What would cause a bias toward white people, then?
Mr. VEDANTAM: The bias toward white people also comes from the culture. When we look at television every day and we see who's on television, when we see people in positions of authority and dignity, we see white people far more than people of color. When we see homes and we see who lives in nice homes and who doesn't, we again have an association that white people generally tend to be better off than people of color. We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them.
But in the course of an average year, a teacher may talk about tolerance, let's say 50 times. And that's a very, very generous number. In terms of the unconscious mind, these children are seeing hundreds of examples on a weekly basis that tend to make associations between white people in positions of dignity or white people in positions of wealth. And it's these hidden associations that are essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children.
INSKEEP: I wonder if there's another lesson here, because you point out in passing in this book that there were any number of parents of the children who were studied, who found to have these unconscious racial biases. The parents tended to be well-meaning, and if they had any intent to teach their children anything about race, they wanted actually to say nothing about race, to call no attention to people's races, to have no message there whatsoever because the presumption was that any such message would be bad. What is the practical effect, if you're a parent, of not discussing this with your kids because you, being quite well meaning, don't want to call too much attention to race?
Mr. VEDANTAM: I think it's an excellent question, Steve, because I think what you're - the underlying question that you're asking is that in our society, we believe that color blindness is the ideal. That's a worthy aspiration, but it's an aspiration that isn't based or rooted in reality.
The reality of it is that our hidden minds, our hidden brains, will always recognize people's races, and they will do so from a very, very young age. And the far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask them to unpack the associations that they are learning to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.
INSKEEP: If the kids yank it into their conscious minds, they can make a more conscious decision.
Mr. VEDANTAM: I think that's right. I think what's important is not to assume that our hidden brains will always be clean machines. There will always be unconscious associations that we may or may not be happy with. So the problem is not that the plane has a pilot and an autopilot function. The problem is that sometimes, without the pilot even being aware of it, it's the autopilot function that's flying the plane. And what the book is trying to do is to say take back the controls.
INSKEEP: If you've got this mind with a lot of things happening in it, and some of them are conscious and a great many of them are unconscious and maybe working against your conscious intent, should you be wondering at some point which brain in there is the real you?
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Mr. VEDANTAM: You know, I think most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures. I know that I think of myself that way. I know why I like this movie star or why I voted for this president, why I prefer this political party to that, why I have this policy view and not that.
As I have reported and written this book, I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself. And it may well be that the hidden brain actually is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious minds and intentions.
INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam is author of "The Hidden Brain." He also writes for the Washington Post. Thanks very much.
Mr. VEDANTAM: Thank you so much, Steve.
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INSKEEP: There's an excerpt from "The Hidden Brain" at our Web site, npr.org. Although, if you're motivated to go read it, who really knows why?
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.