Shankar Vedantam Finds The Bias In Our Hidden Brain
This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Maureen Cavanagh. We all like to think we make rational decisions based on facts and clear thinking. Maybe we get carried away every once in a while but most of the time we've got a perfectly good reason for our actions and opinions. Well the new program airing on PBS radio on Saturday is challenges that assumption Hidden Brain based on the popular book of the same name digs deep into the reasons behind human behavior in the unconscious mind. Joining me is the host of hidden brain. SHANKAR VEDANTAM And Shankar welcome to the show. Thanks so much for having me. Maureen you've said your goal is to get listeners to think about the news in an unusual and interesting ways. Can you give us an idea of what you mean and how you go about it. Sure. When when we look at the news it's often the case that we think of events happening as if they are new or surprising or strange. And as a card carrying journalist for many decades now that's certainly how I thought of covering the news. But it also turns out that you can look at the news with a deeper perspective you can say the news is actually revealing things about how human nature works. There are insights that you can draw historical insights certainly but also psychological insights why people do the things they do and in some ways you can use the news as a laboratory as a case study to understand much deeper things about human nature. That's the goal of Hidden Brain. Well for instance you recently looked into why the May 2 movement is finally happening after years of people virtually ignoring sexual harassment allegations. What does our Hidden Brain have to do with that. While this is a real paradox because if you think about it the concerns about sexual harassment go back many many decades and so it's when you see the Metu movement and sort of the rise in interest in sexual harassment and we're finding ways to address it. One of the questions we thought we'd ask is why now what has changed now to make this possible. And I would argue the hidden brain has played an important role in how this has happened because it explains how mass movements come to be and why mass movements in some ways happen at one period of time and not another period of time. One of the examples we give drew on the work of two more Quraan at Duke University who looked at how when if you if you went to East Germany right before the fall of the Berlin Wall you know in the weeks before the wall fell very few people believed that the Soviet Union was vulnerable to breakup and collapse. But a few weeks after it happened there was this massive switch in opinion where everyone said of course it was inevitable that the Soviet Union was going to collapse and in some ways we used that as a way to track what happened in ME2 where something seems impossible at first and then it happens and then it seems inevitable is the hidden unconscious brain more powerful than our ability to think rationally. No and in fact I don't think they necessarily always in opposition to one another I think one of the common mistakes that people make is they believe the unconscious mind works at cross purposes to the conscious mind that certainly does happen sometimes. But in fact for much of our lives the conscious mind and the unconscious mind work perfectly in concert with one another. So the simplest example is when you wake up in the morning and you're heading to the bathroom to brush your teeth your hidden brain is orchestrating much of what you're doing it's orchestrating how you step out of bed how you find your balance how you're walking which direction you go you're not necessarily thinking about all those things consciously is sort of your you've outsourced that and in some ways that works perfectly in concert with what you want to do consciously which is what you want to brush your teeth. So much of the time in fact the conscious mind of the unconscious mind are not in opposition they work very well in harmony but there certainly are times when they do come into conflict and those conflicts are often a subject of the stories that we explore on Hidden Brain. You talk on the Hidden Brain frequently about some of the darker deeper thoughts that are hidden in our brains that perhaps we don't even recognize. Is there any way to overcome the influence of those thoughts and prejudices perhaps that we we don't want to have right so one of the major areas of the study of the unconscious mind has focused on the subject of prejudice and discrimination that has certainly been the case over the last I would say 10 to 15 years in some ways. Maureen I would question it's not so much that we've discovered that there are deep and dark parts of our minds that you know act in malevolent ways it's just that the hidden brain operates with a set of rules that are very different than the conscious brain. So let me give you an example if I were to ask you can a woman become president of the United States. You would say any citizen who runs for office can can be a president of the United States. Your hidden brain however has a very different message because your brain has looked out of the world and it's drawing what seem like logical inferences about how the world is. So when you look at the world and you find that most U.S. presidents in fact all U.S. presidents have been men most Presidents of Major corporations are men. Most people in positions of dignity and authority tend to be men Hidden Brain draws the inaccurate but largely logical conclusion that there's something about being a man that's associated with positions of power. So when you have to make a judgment for example should a person be promoted to a job should a person be elected to high office. Your conscious brain might believe one thing your hidden brain might believe something else. It's not necessarily nefarious it's just using a different processing system for your radio show hidden brain you find people willing to tell stories about their lives about why they choose to perhaps stick to their own kind or about a sexual harassment encounter. So is it difficult to find people willing to talk about these subjects. I would say no more difficult than any other form of journalism. I think there is a great deal of interest in the subject that we explore on Hidden Brain subjects about why we do what we do how how our minds come to the conclusions that they do. And I think people recognize that hidden brain is not a judge mental show it's not a political show it's not an ideologically driven show. Our goal is not to sort of show your behavior in this case reveals how incompetent or stupid or foolish you are. It really is to sort of show here's how all of our minds work at some level and in some ways listening to the stories of other people gives us insight into how our own minds work and that might be actually one of the reasons many people want to come on and speak to us because they recognize it's sort of a non-judgemental space it's analytical. What are some of the things coming up this season on the show we're working on many different kinds of stories we're just in the process for example right before I came in to do this chat with you we were brainstorming how to structure a story involving a woman who actually lived in Southern California actually who discovered over time that her dad was not quite the man that she thought he was. And it's a story that is partly about how children and parents interact with one another and how we come to have a different understanding of our parents as we as we age. But it's also a question of how we sometimes have to hold contradictory notions of the same person in our head that at one level the person we think coff is someone whom we love someone whom we had why someone whom we respect at the other. At the same time we might also have to confront that the person might have done bad things or inappropriate things. I've been speaking with Shankar Vedantam host of NPR's hidden brain which you can hear on Saturday afternoons at 3 on KPBS radio. Thank you so much. Thank you so much Maureen.
As NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam aims to get listeners to think about the news and our reactions to it in unusual and interesting ways.
On KPBS Midday Edition, Vedantam used the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union to illustrate how our unconscious minds are different than our conscious minds. Before the wall fell, Vedantam said, most believed the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall itself were indestructible. Afterward, many declared the destruction had obviously been coming.
He believes the same is true for the #MeToo movement, which quickly gathered momentum and thousands of believers seemingly overnight. The hidden part of our brains saw this coming.
Shankar Vedantam appears on KPBS Midday Edition to talk about his NPR show "Hidden Brain," which debuts on KPBS Radio Saturday, August 4 at 3 p.m.