The Awesome Power of the Hidden Brain

Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam shared how implicit bias shapes human interaction.

If you had a tool that didn’t work—a laser pointer, say—you’d get the feedback that something was wrong. When you tried to use it to highlight something on your presentation, nothing would happen and you’d know that it wasn’t plugged in correctly or the battery was dead, and you’d be able to do something to fix it.

That’s how Shankar Vedantam, NPR correspondent and host of the Hidden Brain podcast, opened his presentation on implicit bias to Sidwell Friends faculty and staff.

Your brain, he said, doesn’t behave in the same way or give the same feedback as a laser pointer would. It is incapable of tapping you on the shoulder and letting you know there’s a problem. But that’s where Shankar and his presentation come in. He was, in his words, there to tap us on the shoulder to let us know our brains might not be as reliable as we assume and what we can do to counteract that.

Humans outsource their day-to-day functions to what Shankar calls the hidden brain so that our active brain can focus on important, immediate, and sometimes life-saving tasks. The hidden brain is not evil, he said, but it does make certain errors as a result of its design and function. It’s possible to counteract these cognitive shortcuts, but it takes deliberate effort.

Shankar demonstrated the power of the hidden brain by asking six volunteers to perform a version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a Harvard-designed web tool that shows that humans tend to make certain assumptions without necessarily realizing it. The volunteers were able to link female names with home-associated words and male names with work-associated words faster and with fewer mistakes than they could link female with work and male with home. That, said Shankar, is not because they are sexist. It’s because our culture—even in progressive Washington, DC—still regards work as man’s domain and home as woman’s.

Tests like the IAT “are picking up something about the culture as a whole,” said Shankar. Girls’ performance in science and math as compared with boys’ is predicted by a country’s scores on the gender association test. Likewise, communities where hate crimes take place tend to have a record of google searches that feed the attitudes behind such crimes. It’s not that the perpetrator is googling hateful material; it’s that he lives in a community that is more accepting of such attitudes.  

Shankar shared additional examples of bias in education, from science professors ranking male job candidates higher than female applicants despite identical resumes to Israeli teachers giving better math grades to male students. It’s impossible to get rid of individual bad actors if it’s the culture that is creating them, he said. But what can be done?

Shankar recommends that we think of unconscious bias as a disability, not a moral failing. “What if we decided being short-sighted was a moral failing?” he asked as he removed his glasses. “I’d say ‘I’m not short-sighted,’ and then I’d drive.” In other words, he said, don’t focus on the bias. Focus on the behavior. Measure outcomes and create space for reflection to give your conscious brain time to take over for your hidden brain.

For example, NPR keeps a list of sources used in stories. The list is clearly male-dominated, even though no one sets out to interview only male experts. But now that reporters know about this bias, they can take steps to fix it.

As part of our work to implement our strategic plan and to meet our goal of welcoming a wider opportunity, Sidwell Friends is engaging in conversations like this one because we realize that implicit bias shapes life everywhere, including on campus. And we are trying to do something about it.

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