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The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives Hardcover – January 19, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Washington Post science journalist Vedantam theorizes that there's a hidden world in our heads filled with unconscious biases, often small, hidden errors in thinking that manipulate our attitudes and actions without our knowing it. Autonomy is a myth, he says, because knowledge and rational intention are not responsible for our choices. This thesis is not news— since Freud, psychologists have taken the unconscious into account—but Vedanta argues that if we are influenced sometimes, then why not all the time, whether we're launching a romance or a genocide. This is a frightening leap in logic. In anecdotal, journalistic prose, we learn that, through bias, rape victims can misidentify their attacker; people are more honest even with just a subtle indication that they are being watched; polite behavior has to do with the frontotemporal lobes rather than with how one was raised; and that we can be unconsciously racist and sexist. Though drawing on the latest psychological research, Vedantam's conclusions are either trite or unconvincing. (Jan. 19)
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From Booklist

A Washington Post science writer, Vedantam explores the findings of social psychologists about unconscious bias. Recounting people’s stories, he grips attention immediately. Introducing a rape victim whose mistake in identifying her assailant was revealed by DNA evidence that exonerated him, Vedantam establishes his theme of how people get things wrong (in the crime-and-punishment category, he adds death-penalty cases involving possible misidentification) or behave seemingly irrationally. After each individual story, the author repairs to relevant psychological studies. To Vedantam, the studies reveal that subtle biases unconsciously coexist alongside people’s conscious convictions that they are free of prejudice. He cites examples such as Senator George Allen, whose racial remark ended his career; the electorate’s perception of candidate Barack Obama; and the sexual discrimination case of Lilly Ledbetter. Branching into other arenas, such as crowd behavior during crisis situations and the minds of suicide bombers, Vedantam highlights a mental battle of which, he wants his readers to learn, they are largely unaware. This work has strong appeal for the psychology audience. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; First Edition edition (January 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385525214
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385525213
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #230,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Shankar Vedantam is a science correspondent at National Public Radio, based in Washington DC. He was formerly a national correspondent and columnist for the Washington Post, and a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He is interested in how insights from psychology and the social sciences can change the way we think about ordinary events in our lives, as well as news events. Learn more about Shankar at and follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain and on Facebook at

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

96 of 101 people found the following review helpful By David Field VINE VOICE on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Shankar Vedantam's "The Hidden Brain" is yet another one of those "Let's do a book like Malcolm Gladwell." And luckily, like Sheena Iyengar's "The Art of Choosing," it's another good one. Vedantam's subject is the part of the brain that functions unbeknown to its owner.

I thought this was called "The Subconscious," but that's not the same thing, insofar as we all have our personal subconscious. The Hidden Brain is the unconscious way we all think (or just about all of us), and it's a chilling reminder that what we think is free choice actually isn't.

Vedantam draws on recent psychological research to show some disturbing facts. He spends a whole chapter on investigating racial bias among people who never showed it. He comes to the conclusion that not only are these people biased in spite of their belief that they're not, but we are all biased, and this comes from infancy. People act unbiased against their unconscious beliefs, even in one case, a minority person whose job was to teach other people to be unbiased.

The way the hidden brain does this is so subtle that we're fooled into thinking that it's normal, conscious thinking. How else would the teacher of racial harmony find herself associating bad things with minority names? The inference is that we'll all do this. If you deny this, try the tests at "Project Implicit" at the Harvard University web site.

Another chapter is devoted to gender bias. It is sad to hear the stories of two professors at Stanford University talk about their professional life since a sex change. The woman who changed to a man says, "I am taken more seriously." He was called a better worker than his "sister" (the same person).
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115 of 129 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Books on behavioral science have been in vogue lately. Books like Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts have intrigued audiences by showing how science can illuminate our often hidden behavioral quirks.

Economists used to say that we are generally rational actors, while psychology used to say that we are primarily motivated by hidden subconscious mechanisms. According to this and other books, the truth is about 50/50. In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam focuses his journalistic microscope on the unconscious things running through our minds that often help influence - sometimes dictate - our behavior. He terms these hidden biases "the hidden brain" and argues that even those decisions we make that we "feel" are made rationally and without bias are often not that way at all. Did you know, for instance, that studies have shown that beginning investors are much more likely to invest in companies whose names are readily pronouncable (I'd conjecture this is the same for buyers of wine). What about the idea that many studies tell us that we are much more prone to conformity - doing what others are doing - than we often want to admit? That's the hidden brain at work.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on January 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The author here tells us (again) what we already know about ourselves: that our brain is a multi-tasking bio-emotional instrument -- with one part of our mental functioning taking place above the waterline of consciousness, the other (much larger part) below it. What is new here is his belief (based on a great deal of interesting anecdotal data and also on some solid more recent scientific findings), that most of the important thinking performed by our brains goes on below the zone of conscious awareness. But more importantly, here he also tells us why. Despite his elaborate explanations though, it must be said again that Sigmund Freud (among many others) made their living by advancing this same (or very similar) theories, and used them to monopolize psychotherapy and psychological understanding for the better part of the 20th Century.

However, arguably, this author's research goes a bit further than Freud, as he attempts to combine science with actual human laboratory experiments, and backs them up with convincing anecdotal examples, which together allow him to argue (often convincingly) that the latest "split view" of the brain results from more utilitarian and tactical concerns of brain functioning and brain architecture itself than due to some theory hatched by "Ivy Tower" theorists of psychology.

His crowning point is the suggestion that the mind is made up mostly of memory cells whose groves are imprinted more deeply by the quantity or number of repetitive and routine impressions or experiences made on it -- or that it engages in, or, are acquired through multiple channels of perception.
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