So You Think You Voted Rationally

Posted January 15, 2010 at 3:37pm

Imagine you’re standing in a voting booth. Over the past months you’ve devoured countless news articles and pored over policy statements. You’re informed and you’re ready. You confidently grab the pencil, tick a little box near your candidate’s name and submit your ballot. As you leave, an overwhelming sense of satisfaction radiates from every pore.

But wait! Suppose you aren’t as in control of that decision as you think. What if a clandestine force in your own mind has effectively hijacked the choice long before you read a single campaign brief?

It’s hard to stomach, but that’s the frustrating and fascinating premise for Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam’s new book, “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.— Vedantam pairs cutting-edge psychological research with exceptionally readable real-world case studies to examine the effects of unconscious bias in everyday life. Although subtle, he says, these unconscious processes can have profound effects over our judgment, attitude and behavior.

The author enthusiastically places this new understanding of human behavior on par with the discovery of natural selection, quantum mechanics and a solar-centric planetary system. And like the solar system, he notes, the book is arranged into a series of concentric circles. The early chapters deal with small examples of unconscious bias, while the later ones tackle larger issues.

“The Hidden Brain— is no doubt written in the spirit of the work of fellow Post science desk alumnus Malcolm Gladwell. Vedantam employs a Gladwellian knack for drawing important correlations between diverse phenomena with intellectual clarity. But where Gladwell’s 2005 national best-seller “Blink— stops short of politicizing reflexive thought, Vedantam turns the process loose to explain how our unconscious can account for suicide bombers, electoral preference and racial disparity in the judicial system. Former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), Lily Ledbetter and President Barack Obama make substantive appearances among his pages.

We may not, for instance, have as much agency over our vote as we think: The Harvard study Implicit Association Test, which is also mentioned in “Blink,— measures unconscious bias by asking participants to match words such as “beauty,— “love,— “nasty— and “ugly— with typically Caucasian faces and names like Adam and Chip or typically African-American faces and names like Alonzo and Jamal. The results are timed. Large majorities of Americans, it turns out, find it harder to associate positive words with black names and faces. One test even found a large number of participants associated British Prime Minister Tony Blair with being more American than Obama. (Skeptical? Take the test yourself at implicit.harvard.edu).

These unconscious biases affected the 2008 election, Vedantam states. The Harvard researchers found that electoral districts that logged more unconscious bias against blacks were less likely to vote for Obama. In fact, all Republicans elected in districts with the highest bias scores were white. Vedantam writes that once the “hidden brain— — his anthropomorphic avatar for our unconscious mental processes — “whispered to these voters that Obama was different, they quickly came up with plausible ways to explain to themselves why they didn’t like the candidate — his views on health care, perhaps, or the economy.—

“The Hidden Brain— is full of these disturbing conclusions, not least of which is that these biases are nurtured from childhood. Even kindergartners find it difficult to associate black characters in stories with being clever or heroic. No wonder our system of justice is designed to fail, as Vedantam notes. When comparing equitable crimes, darker-skinned blacks have a 57.5 percent chance of being sentenced to death, while the chance for blacks with lighter skin is 24.4 percent.

But Vedantam also finds intriguing ways to extrapolate what scientists know about the hidden brain to life-saving human instincts. The most vivid example is 9/11. In perhaps the most captivating case study in the book, Vedantam explains why almost everyone on the 88th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower survived that tragic terrorist strike while almost everyone on the 89th floor died. Why? Because one man — J.J. Aguilar — ran from his office urging everyone on floor 88 to flee. The people on floor 89, however, chose as a group to stay. Crises unconsciously cause groups to impose conformity on individuals, Vedantam notes.

The same small-group dynamics, however, can also keep people from acting. Years ago, cars full of people watched as a man beat a woman so gruesomely that she jumped to her death from the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit. Not one spectator jumped in to help. If only one person had stepped in, more certainly would have, Vedantam writes.

The author also explores how Americans can be so calloused to widespread genocide in Rwanda while donating tens of thousands of dollars to rescue a sole puppy stranded on an abandoned oil tanker. Perhaps “ruthless natural selection has produced a species that recoils at the ruthlessness of natural selection,— he writes. Our hidden brain is both brutal and necessary.

“The Hidden Brain— can be an uncomfortable read at points. It requires a certain level of meta-thought that is completely off-putting; not one of us wants to confront the possibility that we are not in control of our own actions and ideas. But Vedantam argues that confronting the hidden brain is a necessary step toward being able to overcome our biases. Understanding them can help us be more skeptical of our motives. Reason, he writes, “is our only rock against the tides of unconscious bias.—