forum discussion #11

How the Hidden Brain Controls Our Lives

We like to think of ourselves as conscious, rational beings.

But human behavior is largely driven by unconscious attitudes.

These attitudes reside in the deep recesses of the brain, and we ignore them at our own peril.

So says Washington Post journalist Shankar Vedantam.

Vedantam is the author of a new book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. He joins us in this Science Forum discussion.
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Vedantam explores how the workings of the unconscious mind explain everything from genocide and injustice to the rise of suicide bombers.

The World’s science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee spoke with Vedantam about the role of the hidden brain in our lives and actions.  Listen to that interview here.

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Listeners asked Vedantam their own questions on The World Science Forum. You can follow that conversation. It’s just to the right.

  • Have you ever regretted a decision you made, realizing later that it was impulsive and ill-informed?
  • Do you think it’s possible to change our unconscious biases by better understanding our hidden brains?
  • Or does understanding our hidden brains makes us more confused, less sure of our decisions?

The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Shankar – Many thanks for participating in the World Science Forum. This is a fascinating and important topic.

    You talk about the hidden biases that control our actions, but what about physical changes in our brains? Chemical addictions and mental illnesses can alter behavior, often in self-destructive ways. Do these physical changes affect the same parts of the brain as the cultural/psychological influences you talk about? In other words, do racism and heroin addiction look at all similar in the brain?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Thanks for the great question, David. Addictions and mental disorders do indeed affect the hidden brain, as does culture. But it’s an error to think of them as affecting some common, underlying “hidden” part of our brains. The “hidden brain” is a metaphor, not a part of the physical brain that is actually hidden, or recently unearthed. It refers to a range of mental processes that affect our judgment and decisions without our awareness. So in that sense, an addiction that produces subtle desire for a drug and a cultural stereotype that subtly causes us to think of male leaders differently than female leaders are both hidden influences, but not in the sense of affecting any one part of the physical brain.

  2. DJ Brasier

    Hello Shankar,

    I was very interested in the discussion about how our unconscious brain controls political decisions. I often feel like politicians struggle to fit ideas into a commonsensical soundbite for public consumption. This has advantages of reaching people. The disadvantage I see is that some soundbites can sound good but produce bad policies or sound bad but produce good policies. Does your work provide any insight into how important political ideas that don’t fit into a soundbite can be effectively communicated?

    DJ Brasier

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Thanks for the great question. Voters do have a need for simple ideas, well communicated, and I don’t think that is going to change. The challenge for leaders is to make complex ideas accessible. Great leaders do this; they dramatize causes and use symbols – think of Mahatma Gandhi and the Salt March or Rosa Parks and the bus. They also use metaphor and other storytelling techniques, and situate ideas within historical narratives that people can relate to – think about Churchill during the Battle for Britain. The problem is not that leaders condense ideas into soundbites, but that many leaders really don’t have very much of value to say. I honestly do think that once there is vision – real vision, not just a bunch of smart ideas – the vehicle to communicate that vision will emerge.

  3. Jim

    You observe that research finds that people with unconscious racial bias tend to be conservative and hence vote Republican, which is the conservative party. I am not surprised. I have always found that conservative philosophy tends to be parochial, nationalistic and almost tribal. I think the human being is inherently tribal. In that sense a race neutral bias tends to be a nation building philosophy. The conservative approach to state building with people of other cultures is by conquest. Here I might contrast President Andrew Jackson with Woodrow Wilson.
    I like your comparison to suicide bombers and the Kamikaze suicide bombers. Those bombers were selfless heroes. Should we distinguish between bombers who attack military targets and those which target civilian populations?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Thanks for the note, Jim. The research shows that both Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks, tend to hold an anti-black or pro-white bias in the United States. Areas of the country where racial bias is highest tend to vote conservative. There are nuances to this, which are described at length in the chapter of The Hidden Brain called Disarming The Bomb. I personally prefer to stick with the empirical evidence, and avoid overly broad generalizations.

      • Jim

        Thanks Shankar,
        It is a subject of profound dimensions. But, can there ever be enough relevant empirical evidence? I’ll check out the book.

  4. This discussion really caught my attention because I do a lot of thinking about my own unconscious and how it affects my life and decisions. My feeling about my unconscious has always been that it it a source of wisdom and possesses a level of understanding that my conscious mind can not. The reasoning behind this is that the amount of data input that we experience in our lives is so vast that our conscious mind could not possibly process it all. My unconscious self seems to be this silent intelligence that is constantly taking in all of the subtleties of my experience and from that input producing intuitive feelings. For example, if your business partner is cheating you, your conscious mind may not pick up the clues but your intuition may tell you that something is not right.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Most people feel intuitions are powerful and accurate guides, and in many domains of life, especially in the realm of personal preferences, intuition is very useful. But serious questions are raised about the accuracy of our intuitions by several warehouses filled with research experiments that show how our intuitions lead us astray. We all seek the comfort of being told our intuitions are accurate, but I believe we would be better off, as individuals and as a society, if we trusted the evidence over our intuitions. The final chapter in my book which is titled The Telescope Effect, talks about how our intuitions cause us to make serious errors when it comes to moral judgment.

  5. In my youth, I was very data-driven and tried to make all decisions based on facts and logic. As I’ve gotten older, I have found myself operating more and more on an intuitive basis, with pretty good success. I’ve found that trying to gather all the evidence is paralyzing (there’s a name for it – “analysis paralysis”). In general I can gather 80% of the evidence and a conclusion just pops out. Spending more time on it usually doesn’t change the conclusion. I don’t know whether I’m disagreeing with you or not – I guess I can see that there’s a lot of opportunity for unconcious bias with no analysis to verify it. But maybe there are multiple right answers (especially in technical decisions) and it’s ok to go with one rather than spending more time.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Thanks for the great comment, Bill. You may be surprised to learn I agree with you. There is a stage of analysis beyond which adding additional data does not produce better results, but paralysis. But recognizing the risks of overanalysis is very different than rejecting analysis in toto in favor of gut-instinct — there is a “sweet spot” between too little and too much analysis. I think it is fair to say that, in general I believe our society does too little analysis and trusts intuition too much, but there are bound to be some individuals who analyze too much — to their detriment.

  6. Charles Warner

    I tend to agree with Bill Walton within limitations, in that, in my areas of expertise, “80%” of the evidence is generally sufficient to draw a valid conclusion at this stage of my life. I do not know if the intuition studies referenced by Shankar Venantam controls for differing levels of experience and expertise (and age) in the areas where one applies intuition, but it makes sense that, with experience in a particular field, one’s intuition would become more accurate. One may not need to consciously draw on all of past experience- it is possible that the subconscious can assimilate the pertinent information with no conscious effort. On the other hand, in areas of limited experience (i.e., in my case, romantic relationships) intuition may be no better than random chance.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Well said, Charles, I agree with you. When an athlete spends years working on a skill and masters it and makes it “automatic,” it’s a big mistake to tell that athlete to think through every step of the activity instead of allowing motor memory to take over. The hidden brain has become superior to the conscious brain in this domain, because as I explain in the book, the rules in the domain have been mastered by the hidden brain and the hidden brain is much faster than the conscious brain. Again, that’s a very different scenario from a patient visiting a doctor or a manager interviewing someone for a position and just getting a feeling that they are “not quite right” for the job. (I wonder if people who are prone to analysis self-select themselves to post questions to forums like this?)

  7. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi Shankar,

    Going back to our conversation about how we’re strongly influenced by the people around us. I’m wondering if that’s simply because human beings evolved in small groups/tribes? And if so, what about people who think and act differently from those around them? Do they consciously overcome the shackles of group psychology?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      I certainly think the fact that humans have evolved to be a social species plays a large role in the effects that groups have on us. I’m uncomfortable with the “shackles” terminology, however, because it suggests that we all ought to shake off the influences that others have on us. As I explain in The Hidden Brain, however, our ties to one another, and our ability to influence and be influenced by others is a marker of our evolution and intelligence, not a sign of weakness or slavery. There are certainly times it is more and less functional to be influenced by groups, and at various times all of us have managed to stand apart from group influences. My hope is people will try to do this consciously — embrace the group when it is appropriate to do so, and reject it when needed.

  8. Chris

    I found the effects of our unconscious thoughts quite interesting due to the fact that they create bias through a conscious medium. And because of your thorough research, I hope you can provide an elevated input on a controversial physiological dilemma. Do you feel that mental illness (not mental retardation) is directly related to an unconscious view of social ideas placed onto the victim?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Shankar Vedantam

      Thanks for the question, Chris. It seems rather clear that there are many different types of mental illnesses. Most mental illnesses are likely caused as a result of some interaction between the biology of the brain and the environment — whether that environment refers to toxins or injuries, or experiences and traumatic events.
      Thanks for all the great questions. Please join me at — where I bring up interesting connections between news events and the hidden brain.

  9. “Do you think it’s possible to change our unconscious biases by better understanding our hidden brains?”

    Isn’t this what hypnosis and subliminal recordings (positive ones ideally) try to affect? I’ve recently started researching how effective these technologies are, and the premise is that by subjecting our hidden brains to positive affirmations (and trying to change our belief systems) on a regular basis we can eventually effect our unconscious biases. Or have I got the wrong end of the stick?


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Hi Christine,

      I’m the science reporter here at The World, and the moderator of our online science discussions.

      Thanks for stopping by with your questions. Unfortunately, Shankar Vedantan has already left the discussion (he took questions for just one week). But having read his book and interviewed him, I’d say yes, Shankar is making the case that understanding our hidden brains can help change our unconscious biases.

      I can’t answer your questions about hypnosis and subliminal recordings….I think those procedures deal with individual stories, and biases, whereas the ‘Hidden Brain’ is talking about more generalizable principles about the human brain and behavior.


  10. Rhitu – thanks for the clarification that Mr. Vendantan has left the discusion. This thread was shared with me by someone who recommended the book to me and I was formulating a question for Mr. Vendantan but now know not to ask. Thanks. I really respect his work. Regards Jimmy

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Thanks Jimmy! Feel free to leave a question, and if I can answer it I will. Otherwise I hope this discussion has proved helpful to you….and enjoy reading the book. It’s fascinating! Rhitu

  11. Rhitu – Is the book still available on the market? I can’t find one in our area. Is there a way to buy the book from this website? Thanks!

  12. Rhitu, I don’t know if you are still available to take new comments. I was just wondering if we assume that most of our external decisions are affected by the unconscious attitudes caused by recesses of brains that how can we explain a mass movement (e.g a freedom struggle, political wave) taking place at any corner of this planet. How is it possible that so many human brains conform to a particular thought process which might end up in a decisive action?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Hi Donald,

      That’s a great question! That we’re irrational creatures, often under the control of our hidden brains doesn’t mean that our rational sides don’t exist. Now, I don’t know the neuroscience, or the social science of mass movements, but I suspect they involve both conscious and unconscious processes in our brains. Let me look into this a bit more, and get back to you with a more informed answer.


  13. Ace

    The human mimd is also very flawed when it comes to planning long term solutions to future problems. Most people are not motivated to deal with a problem until it appears before their eyes – such as pollution. It seems that unless the hidden brain evolves soon its flaws might destroy the planet and environment.

  14. human minds are unpredictable and most often unexplainable… in most cases, we do not use our brains when making a decision. Instead, we use our hearts.. thus, no matter how rational things may seem, people would decide the other way around.

  15. Glennda Mirabete

    @ Cynthia:
    You are very right. Even the most rational and logical person sometimes fail because we can’t really trust human mind.

  16. I have been really interested in how the sub-concious brain actually controls our political decisions. It seems that politicians sometimes struggle to fit their ideas in to a sound-bite for the public.
    This can have ite advantages in reaching all the people out there. tut The disadvantage that I see is that some ideas sound good but will produce some pretty bad policies or even sound terrible and produce some very good policies.

  17. I think this would be such an amazing book to read! The human mind is so exciting to learn about… epically when it comes to the unconscious!

  18. I LOVE books like this, so incredibly fascinating! There is an author by the name of Greg Braden that I would highly recommend to anyone that finds this type of discussion interesting. He goes into different stuff than this, but truly one of the most brilliant people I have ever read from.

  19. Wow! these all comments here are really amazing! i found out such a nice ethics and and transparent of data was composed here.. i really think this kind of discussion its like a book i am reading which have a different side of people who wrote a book with a different cover..It is much interesting to read valuable information and bundle of ideas that we can gathered for a better learning. thank you for sharing.

  20. I find these types of books incredibly facinating. Another author that has a similar style would be Michael Tsarion. He does tend to get a bit esoteric but his subject matter is brilliant.

  21. Rozell

    I think that the brain and it’s hidden parts are way beyond advanced to be measured with science of today. Nature made the brain to complex to be easily broken down with man made technology the brain has hidden parts for a reason not for scientist to try and tap into leave nature alone. Some things in nature arent for man to find out.

  22. What really interests me is the extent that we can, or cannot, change our individual behavior through understanding how much of it is triggered by hidden forces. It seems to me that since most motivation arises this way we cannot escape from it – its like looking through a distorting mirror with no opportunity of an alternative view – understanding itself cannot eliminate the effect. Maybe what we can more easily do is modify our institutions to minimize exploitation of this fact by the unscrupulous – I would give as an example the way that advertisers are allowed to ruthlessly exploit our animal instincts.

  23. This doesn’t really surprise me.

    Most of our behavior is controlled by over ancient reptile brain. It takes a conscious effort to do something that goes against the will of the reptile brain.

    Sometimes it requires little effort (don’t eat that chocolate cake), sometimes it requires a lot of effort (be on a diet for several weeks).

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