Skip to content

Book Review-The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

It was years ago. I was working on a billing system. It was designed to bill based on the amount of time used. It billed in six second increments – 10ths of a minute. It was late, and I noticed something odd. There was a bit of math, but it didn’t add up – or rather it added up a bit too much. It’s typical to have to adjust mathematical errors in code. If someone started and ended in the same tick, you charge them for not zero ticks, as end minus start would imply if they’re the same. Instead, you add one to the math equation to say that there was non-zero utilization. However, the code was written in a way that added this adjustment in twice. As a result, the billing was always two tenths of a minute at minimum.

The problem wasn’t discovering the error, it was the comment that prohibited developers from fixing the bug and an instruction to speak with the manager if there were questions. The double addition could have been an accidental mistake. I remember the math being broken into two places and the correction made in both places. However, the note made it clear that the bug was a known bug. One that was charging people for an extra six seconds for every call. It wasn’t much per transaction. Maybe a few pennies. However, as the story line of Office Space can attest, those pennies add up.

This subtle math “error” is the kind of thing that we encounter all the time, and it’s the subject of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. It’s not about the radical changes in direction that are placed outside our conscious view, but rather the subtle tilting of the scales by placing a finger or two on the final outcome. It’s fundamentally about System 1 lying to System 2, to use Khaneman’s language from Thinking: Fast, and Slow.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Brain

We think that we’re in control. We’re wrong. Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis describes the Elephant-Rider-Path model (which is also covered in Switch). It clearly illustrates that a big elephant (or emotions, System 1, Lizard-brain, or whatever you want to call it) is in charge. The rider gets the illusion of being in control so long as the elephant allows it. Incognito demonstrates through visual illusions and thoughtful stories how much we fool ourselves. It’s spooky how much we believe we understand reality and how much our mind plays tricks on us.

Paul Ekman would undoubtedly, at the very least, have concern about saying that our hidden brain (again, System 1, or whatever you want to call it) lies to our rational brain. In Telling Lies, he clarifies that the liar needs to know that he’s lying. In fact, the stress that lying produces because people know it’s not true is how the polygraph works. (Ekman is perhaps best known for his work in detecting lies or, more accurately, emotions through monitoring involuntary facial muscle movement. You can learn more about his life in Nonverbal Messages.) However, our hidden brain keeps taking shortcuts, tilting the scales, and not letting us in that it’s doing it. It’s lying to us – even if we aren’t conscious of it.

Put Out the Fire

Rules of Thumb

In general, heuristics are great. Heuristics are simplifications. They’re “rules of thumb” that you can use to make complicated things simple enough to be understood. Our brains are great at creating them. It’s hardwired into us to find associations and correlations to see if we can simplify the world. If there were no heuristics, there would be no comedy, as comedy and jokes use heuristics to create the wrong impression. (See Inside Jokes for more on how comedy uses heuristics.) The problem isn’t in using heuristics; they’re a great tool to allow us to comprehend the world around us. The problem is when we use a heuristic that doesn’t apply, or the heuristic hides a bias.

I’m biased to people with straight hair compared to curly– at least, that’s what the Implicit Association Test says. (It’s available at if you want to take it for a spin.) How strong is the bias? I don’t know. The test doesn’t say. It simply says a bias exists. If I were to be interviewing two people for a job, I’d have an ever so small bias to the person with straight hair. I’d be applying a heuristic bias that I like straight-haired people more – and I wouldn’t know I was doing it.

Pervasive Biases

I’m not alone in being biased. You are too. Perhaps not in the same ways, but biased. Consider the work of Dr. Clark who gave white children two different dolls – one of a light skin and one of darker skin – and the children called the dark-skinned doll “dirty” and “bad.” It seems like a clear-cut case of racism. That is, until you realize that the black children he tested next had the same general response. It wasn’t racism per se. It was a generalized bias that permeated culture. It’s wrong, I agree. However, to call it racism would be calling black children racist against their own race. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on these tests.)

On a much lighter note, waitresses who subtly mimicked their customers tended to get larger tips – 140% larger tips. We have a bias towards people that “get us.” We want to be understood, and those that understand us are more valuable to us – both in general and, apparently, monetarily as well. The subtle act of mimicry is interpreted by the hidden brain as understanding and is valued – even if we aren’t informed that the bias is happening.

Competitive or Complementary

Gottman predicted divorce rates at 91% accuracy by watching a short fight. (See The Science of Trust for more.) This was impressive to say the least. He identified factors that he believed signaled intimacy longevity and those that drove couples away from one another. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) However, Abraham Tesser found something else that is different and intriguing. Tesser found that people find joy in others’ success – unless their success was in the same area as they were seeking success. In those areas, if their partner or close friend was successful, they became jealous. Couples that who weren’t emotionally close allowed success in a common field to become the wedge that drove them apart. However, emotionally close couples instinctively found complementary ways of dividing up their tasks.

In essence, they found a way to convert competition into cooperation. Richard Hackman is clear about how to build collaborative teams in Collaborative Intelligence. He explains that systems that create a competitive spirit within the team are corrosive to collaboration. It seems like emotionally close couples sense this and unconsciously move into complementary positions, where they could stay a part of a well-functioning team. Instead of a wedge, it becomes a binding that makes them more dependent upon one another.

Talk is Cheap

William Wundt started a branch of psychology that relied on introspection. The behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner, didn’t like it, because it couldn’t be objectively measured. Even Wundt’s successor William James struggled with introspection not because it couldn’t be objectively measured – that is, it couldn’t be observed. James’ struggle was that one could not hope to be without bias for thoughts and feelings occurring inside themselves.

This is the basis of the hidden brain. Much of what happens in our brains isn’t accessible to our consciousness. Even if it was, it would be distorted to protect our ego. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and Its Defenses.) We can’t directly access our hidden brain through reflection or introspection. We’ve got to get to it another way.

Recently, we’ve begun to discover planets in solar systems other than our own. We’re discovering them not because we can see them. We can only see the effect that they’re having on their stars. Super massive planets in close orbit to their stars cause the star to wobble. This wobble is discovered in a slight shifting of the light spectrum from the star in a repeatable pattern – the Doppler effect on a stellar scale. We can find planets, but only by looking for them indirectly.

We find our hidden beliefs by looking at our self-talk and using tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change that self-talk. We don’t change the hidden brain directly, but rather we train the rider how to better control and regulate the elephant in certain conditions. In general, CBT has been found to be effective. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more on CBT and efficacy.)

Kids Say the Darndest Things

One of Art Linkletter’s gifts to culture is a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” That is, they respond in a “cute” way. Sometimes they didn’t understand the question as an adult would. Sometimes they answered in an honest way that an adult never would. Young children and adults are both guided by the hidden brain, and both have the same biases. The difference is that children will say what their hidden brain thinks where adults have learned to restrain their responses. Responses that in children are “cute” would be appalling from an adult. Often the answers are true – but uncomfortable.

There are plenty of examples of celebrities becoming overwhelmed and saying inappropriate things. There’s even a line of commercials from Snickers talking about people who need a snack. They’ve become other people due to their hunger. Researchers have found that much of this isn’t hunger but low blood sugar. They’ve we able to reduce apparent adult prejudice by simply giving them more sugar.

Carried by Currents

Instinctively, we wait. We wait for some sort of consensus to form. The fire alarm may be ringing. The air raid or tornado siren may be blaring. The overhead announcement may be confirming that we need to evacuate the building. Rather than moving immediately, we’ll instinctively pause, survey the group, and attempt to determine what the consensus is before acting. The larger the group, the longer the delay to reach some semblance of consensus – and the more likely we are to have a problem.

We all think that we’re independently protecting our own self-interests when, in reality, we’re waiting on the herd to move so we can keep from being singled out. Even in non-emergency situations, we by default will go with the flow. We’ll assume that our decisions are ours alone; but if you’re always going with the group, how can you be sure that you’re really making your own decisions? If you’re always swimming with the current, you’ll believe that you’re a better swimmer than you are.

Good Samaritans

The good Samaritan story is relatively well known. A stranger, a Samaritan, saves a man on the road by taking him to an inn and agreeing to pay the fee for keeping them there. (I spoke of this in Book Revisited-Theory U, Organizational Traps, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.) The funny thing is that the research shows you’re better off having one Samaritan come by rather than two. It turns out people are more willing to help out when they’re the only one. Whether it’s picking up pencils or something more serious, the more people there are, the lower the expectation of individual intervention.

Similarly, giving to support a single person is easy. Giving to a cause that would save dozens is harder. Somehow our compassion is easily overwhelmed by a dozen when helping one seems easy. It’s almost as if there’s an internal governor that wants to make sure that our efforts are enough to save a “reasonable” portion of the total. If we can’t get to the belief that we’ll make a substantial difference, we’ll do nothing.

Psycho Suicide Bombers

We assume that anyone that is willing to be a suicide bomber must be mentally unstable. How else could we explain their strange and unthinkable behavior? The answer is that they’re living in an alternative universe of their making. They interact with people who focus them in a direction and they’re teleported along a path until their beliefs and behaviors seem unthinkable to the general public.

It doesn’t take religion to perform this conversion. It doesn’t take mental illness. All it takes to create a suicide warrior is to separate them from the rest of reality and slowly move them to a new reality. Terrorists aren’t recruited by terrorist groups. They volunteer because their ideas have become so distorted that the terrorist group seems like the best option.

Groups of people get together and insulate themselves from the outside world while creating a tight mesh of their reality. The band of brothers is formed through shared experiences. One man marries the sister of his good friend. This happens over and over again until the network of people mostly interacts with itself and not with the outside world – the “real” world. Progressively, their attitudes adjust in ways that don’t make sense to most of us.

In the case of suicide bombers, they come to believe that they’re part of something, that their life will have meaning, that they’ll make a difference. While the terrorists rarely come from humiliation itself, they often empathize with persecuted groups and want to make their humiliation and pain go away. They see their role as minimizing or eliminating those inhumanities.

Don’t Drink the Grape Kool-Aid

Certainly, cults show the same tunnel behavior and cut off ties to the outside world. One tragic example is The People’s Temple religious group, whose leader, Jim Jones, warped reality such that parents killed their children and themselves with cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid, because they believed that they were going to be captured and tortured. Their struggle was over.

They’re not alone. The Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves March 25th, 1997 believing that they would be picked up by an alien space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of us believe that this is an odd way to get aboard a space ship, but the shaping of their belief system was so complete that 39 members of the cult followed orders and killed themselves.

Assault on Ourselves

Too often, our hidden brain ignores the statistics, the logic, and the rational in its pursuit of simplicity. Too often, we do things that statistically make no sense. We’ll drive instead of fly, because we perceive it to be safer when it, in actuality, is much less safe. We purchase guns to defend ourselves when the statistics say that our risk of death is much higher when we have guns in the house. It turns out suicide is a much bigger problem than murder – but our hidden brains are assuaged.

We continue to march on, following the orders of our hidden brain. Perhaps if we learn more about The Hidden Brain, we’ll be able to make better decisions both morally and logically.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share this: