Book review: 'The Hidden Brain' by Shankar Vedantam

By Peter D. Kramer
Sunday, January 24, 2010


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

By Shankar Vedantam

Spiegel & Grau. 270 pp. $26

Sen. Harry Reid has faced sharp criticism for speculating during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama may have had an advantage as a black presidential candidate because of his light skin. But a practical test carried out by the Obama campaign -- and now revealed in Shankar Vedantam's book, "The Hidden Brain" -- suggests that Reid may have been on target.

Near the end of the race, Democratic strategists considered combating racial bias by running feel-good television advertisements. The campaign made two versions of the same ad. One featured images of a white dad and two black dads in family settings reading "The Little Engine That Could" to their daughters. The other depicted similar scenes with a white dad and a light-skinned black dad. The first version got high ratings from focus groups, but it did not budge viewers' attitudes toward Obama. The second version elicited less overt enthusiasm, but it increased viewers' willingness to support the candidate. The spots never aired in part, Vedantam writes, because of budget problems.

Vedantam, a science reporter for The Washington Post, saw these ads in the course of his reporting on the science of the unconscious mind. The contrast between viewers' expressed sentiments and their inclinations as voters is, he argues, evidence of the unconscious in action -- in this case, through bias against dark skin. "We are going back to the future to Freud" with this application of science to politics, explains Drew Westen, a psychologist who advised the Obama campaign.

We may be heading back farther yet. Before Freud, the unconscious was understood as a social monitor. Illustrating this limited concept, Freud's collaborator, Joseph Breuer, once wrote that he would suffer "feelings of lively unrest" if he had neglected to visit a patient on his rounds. Freud proposed a more complex, creative unconscious, one that accessed forgotten facts and feelings and, using poetic logic, concocted meaningful dreams, medical symptoms and slips of the tongue. A common example of a misstep provoked by the psychoanalytic unconscious has a young man calling a woman a "breast of fresh air" and then correcting himself: "I mean, a breath of flesh air."

This clever unconscious has fallen on hard times. While contemporary research finds that mental processes occurring outside awareness shape our decisions, the unconscious revealed in those studies is stodgy. It uses simple mechanisms to warn us of risks and opportunities -- and often it is simply wrong.

In "The Hidden Brain," Vedantam reviews this new science and applies it speculatively to practical circumstances in which our subconscious leanings might mislead us. How investors choose stocks, how soldiers obey leaders in battle, how spouses respond in arguments -- these consequential behaviors can be shaped by automatic mental routines that preempt our reason. But Vedantam's greatest interest is in the influence of unexamined thought on politics, and it is here that he makes his most dramatic claims.

For instance, Vedantam reframes an incident from the 2006 election campaign "when former Senator George Allen of Virginia called an Indian American 'macaca' and offered him a 'welcome to America.' " Analyzing this remark, Vedantam relies on studies of bias as it expresses itself at different stages of life. Experiments conducted by psychologist Frances Aboud show that from age three, white children associate positive adjectives such as "kind" with images of white faces and negative adjectives such as "cruel" with images of black faces. Even children raised by parents who emphasize color-blindness absorb stereotypes. In time, children -- and adults -- say the right things, but word-association tests still reveal prejudice. If the unconscious spoke, it would express crude and false equivalences -- black: bad. Vedantam notes similarities between the biased "preschoolers Aboud studied and the likes of George Allen. What mostly changes between the ages of three and thirty are not the associations of the hidden brain but the ability of the conscious mind to restrain those associations."

Vedantam holds Allen responsible for his unconscious but concludes that "the Republican may not have been consciously motivated by the slightest racial animosity." In the "hidden brain we are all biased," Vedantam writes, so "when we see someone slip, our reaction should not be 'We finally caught that racist bastard!' but 'There but for the grace of God go I.' " For Freud, the unconscious pushed sincere beliefs to the surface. (The tongue-tied young man mentioned above desires the young woman.) For Vedantam, the unconscious expresses impulses that we are free to disown.

This generous reasoning -- it's only the hidden brain speaking -- would be more convincing if Vedantam didn't then discuss the tradition in Republican campaigns of using fear of blacks and immigrants as an electioneering tool. Given what else Vedantam says about bias, Allen's insults might constitute playing to the crowd. Vedantam also cites studies that find "a steady association between racial bias scores and a conservative orientation." Overall, the new cognitive-science-based theory of the unconscious shares a problem with the old psychoanalytic one: It is hard to distinguish ideas fully walled off from consciousness -- ones we don't even know we have -- from those that are only disavowed or screened lightly -- ones we recognize as ours but immediately suppress.

How shall we avoid errors attributable to the hidden brain? Like Freud, Vedantam places faith in "making the unconscious conscious," but the meaning of that recommendation has changed. The psychoanalytic ideal was a self that acknowledged hidden drives and channeled them productively. Vedantam seems to hope that we can bypass the unconscious and let reason guide our behavior as investors, warriors or spouses. The goal is less an integrated self than a Trekkie Spock-like hyperrationality.

Vedantam gives only perfunctory attention to the moral issues he raises. When should politicians be held accountable for what pops out of their mouths? What do we make of advertisements that cater to racial biases? Vedantam intends to convey optimism, but he amasses scant evidence that we have effective means for removing prejudice acquired early in life. The studies that characterize the subconscious mind are spotty as well, but in aggregate they support views like the one Harry Reid espoused -- and present an alarming challenge to those who hope that political choice can turn on a mature consideration of issues rather than on fear, mistrust and tribal affiliation.

Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, of "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind."

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