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The Hidden Brain

How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

By Shankar Vedantam
15-minute read
Audio available
The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam

The Hidden Brain (2010) reveals the function and effects of our unconscious lives. In our increasingly interconnected world, unconscious biases and errors influence our memories, judgments, and perceptions and shape our social, economic, and political institutions.

  • White people interested in understanding unconscious racial bias
  • Parents and teachers
  • Students of neuroscience or psychology

Shankar Vedantam is an American journalist, writer, and social-science correspondent for NPR. From 2006 to 2009, he wrote about the hidden brain in his Washington Post column “Department of Human Behavior.” His popular podcast Hidden Brain has over two million downloads per week, and the Hidden Brain radio show is broadcasted to around 250 public radio shows.

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The Hidden Brain

How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

By Shankar Vedantam
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam
Synopsis

The Hidden Brain (2010) reveals the function and effects of our unconscious lives. In our increasingly interconnected world, unconscious biases and errors influence our memories, judgments, and perceptions and shape our social, economic, and political institutions.

Key idea 1 of 9

Evidence of the hidden brain is all around us.

Have you seen the movie The Matrix? In the film, Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, discovers that the world is a simulated reality designed and controlled by robots. This simulation is called the Matrix. Unlike other humans, Neo gains the ability to see and manipulate the Matrix’s code, which gives him the power to emancipate humanity from the simulation.

The Matrix is an improbable sci-fi action flick – and yet it does shed some light on reality. No, we aren’t controlled by robots. But we are controlled by invisible forces. Though we’re oblivious to it, our unconscious mind constantly influences our most basic perceptions.

Our brains are designed to hide these invisible forces. But even if we never feel ourselves being manipulated, studies show that the processes of the hidden brain are always at play.

The key message here is: Evidence of the hidden brain is all around us.

Melissa Bateson is a researcher who tracked a beverage station at an office in Newcastle for ten weeks. The beverage station dispensed coffee, tea, and milk using an honor system. Posted at eye level was a sheet of paper listing the cost of each beverage. Users put money into an honor box to make their payment.

This particular station was in a secluded location, far from the eyes of onlookers who might keep people accountable for their payment. Users did not know that someone was tracking the box. Nor did they consciously register a small image at the top of the notice sheet – an image that Bateson changed every week.

During the five odd-numbered weeks, the image featured various pictures of eyes downloaded from the internet. During the even weeks, it showed nothing but flowers.

Bateson discovered something surprising. When the notice depicted images of eyes, users contributed three times more than they did when the image featured flowers. Even an image in one’s peripheral vision had the power to influence people’s contributions.

But it’s not just images that influence our behavior. A study by psychologist Rick van Baaran conducted at an Applebee’s restaurant in the Dutch town of Heerlen found that when a waitress repeated a customer's order verbatim, the customer gave, on average, a 140 percent larger tip than when she paraphrased the order. 

Baaran’s research showed how people respond positively when they feel in sync with each other. The customers may not have been aware of it, but their choice to give a higher tip was determined by their hidden brain.

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