The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Hidden Brain: How Ocean Currents Explain Our Unconscious Social Biases

Biases often work in surreptitious ways — they sneak in through the backdoor of our conscience, our good-personhood, and our highest rational convictions, and lodge themselves between us and the world, between our imperfect humanity and our aspirational selves, between who we believe we are and how we behave. Those stealthy inner workings of bias are precisely what NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explores in The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives (public library) — a sweeping, eye-opening, uncomfortable yet necessary account of how our imperceptible prejudices sneak past our conscious selves and produce “subtle cognitive errors that lay beneath the rim of awareness,” making our actions stand at odds with our intentions and resulting in everything from financial errors based on misjudging risk to voter manipulation to protracted conflicts between people, nations, and groups.

In the introduction, Vedantam contextualizes why this phenomenon isn’t new but bears greater urgency than ever:

Unconscious biases have always dogged us, but multiple factors made them especially dangerous today. Globalization and technology, and the intersecting faultlines of religious extremism, economic upheaval, demographic change, and mass migration have amplified the effects of hidden biases. Our mental errors once affected only ourselves and those in our vicinity. Today, they affect people in distant lands and generations yet unborn. The flapping butterfly that caused a hurricane halfway around the world was a theoretical construct; today, subtle biases in faraway minds produce real storms in our lives.

Underpinning his exploration isn’t a pointed finger but a compassionate understanding that our flaws make us not bad but human — and give us the opportunity to be better humans. Vedantam puts it beautifully:

Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.

One of the most pernicious and prevalent unconscious biases Vedantam explores has to do with gender. Some may roll their eyes and consider the plight for gender equality dated or irrelevant or solved — but, of course, one quick glance at our alive-and-well cultural gender bias renders such eye-rolling the worst kind of apathy. What, then, perpetuates such persistent prejudice?

Illustration from the 1970 book ‘I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!’ Click image for more.

Vedantam cites the case of a woman who sued her employer for pay discrimination after finding out through a tip from an anonymous colleague that male managers who held the same position as her were paid significantly more. She was earning 79 cents to the dollar of her male peers, a difference that had consequences not only on her annual salary but also on how much she got paid for overtime, how much she could set aside in her 401K, and even how much pension she would one day receive. It was estimated that if she had been compensated fairly, her income in retirement would be double her actual one.

What made the case extraordinary wasn’t just that it made it to the Supreme Court, but that it was ultimately dismissed, despite the blatant evidence. In fact, the ruling was so controversial that it elicited a historic incident: Legendary Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the time the only woman on the court, issued a vocal dissent along with three other Justices — a rather unusual move. Ginsberg stated:

In our view, this court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.

Ginsberg herself should know more than most about the issue at stake. Her personal history in light of the case ruling, Vedantam reminds us, is both a testament to how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go:

When the Supreme Court justice went to law school at Columbia in the 1950s, there were no women’s bathrooms in the building. “If nature called, you had to make a mad dash to another building that had a women’s bathroom,” she recalled… It was “even worse if you were in the middle of an exam. We never complained; it never occurred to us to complain.”

Illustration from the 1970 book ‘I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!’ Click image for more.

Vedantam traces this back to our ongoing predicament and one cultural area where these issues persist most prominently — leadership:

When a woman assumes a leadership role, our unconscious stereotypes about leadership come into conflict with our unconscious stereotypes about women… Our hidden brain makes women leaders appear ruthless and dislikeable for no better reason than that they happen to be women leaders.

More than cultural mythology and proverbial anecdotes, however, these biases have shown up again and again in experimental settings. Vedantam cites one particularly striking study:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to guesstimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters of the volunteers thought James was more likeable than Andrea. Using a clever experimental design, Heilman determined which manager each volunteer preferred: Four in five volunteers preferred to have James be their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader.

But perhaps the most stride-stopping example comes from a unique “experimental design” that takes place not in a lab but in life. Vedantam points to two successful biologists at Stanford, Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres, who each transitioned from one gender to another late in life. Ben, once Barbara, didn’t transition to being a man until he was fifty. Barbara had spent many years oblivious to sexism, even scoffing at the rhetoric of the second wave of feminism. Exceptional at math, she had ignored her high school counselor’s advice to aim lower and had gotten admitted into MIT in 1972. It was there that she had her first brush with extraordinary sexism, though she didn’t realize it at the time:

During a particularly difficult math seminar at MIT, a professor handed out a quiz with five math problems. He gave out the test at nine A.M., and students had to hand in their answers by midnight. The first four problems were easy, and Barbara knocked them off in short order. But the fifth one was a beauty; it involved writing a computer program where the solution required the program to generate a partial answer, and then loop around to the start in a recursive fashion.

“I remember when the professor handed back the exams, he made this announcement that there were five problems but no one had solved the fifth problem and therefore he only scored the class on the four problems,” Ben recalled. “I got an A. I went to the professor and I said, ‘I solved it.’ He looked at me and he had a look of disdain in his eyes, and he said, ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it.’ To me, the most amazing thing is that I was indignant. I walked away. I didn’t know what to say. He was in essence accusing me of cheating. I was incensed by that. It did not occur to me for years and years that that was sexism.”

Fast-forward a few decades and, as Vedantam puts it, “things changed in large and subtle ways after Barbara became Ben.” He gives one particularly telling example, in which after Ben had delivered a lecture at the prestigious Whitehead Institute, someone in the audience, unaware that Barbara and Ben were the same person, remarked:

Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.

The differences also percolated through everyday life as Ben began to notice he was listened to more attentively, serviced more respectfully at stores, and generally made to feel more visible, more like he mattered.

Illustration from the 1970 book ‘I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!’ Click image for more.

Joan Roughgarden, meanwhile, experienced the exact opposite. She arrived at Stanford more than a quarter-century before making her male-to-female transition, landing into a “career track [that] is set up for young men” where “you are assumed to be competent unless revealed otherwise.” After the transition, however, Joan began noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which people were treating her and her work differently, taking her ideas less seriously. When she proposed a controversial theory, she was gobsmacked to see it dismissed not on scientific grounds but on social. She told Vedantam:

When I was doing [my earlier] work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, ‘You have not read all the literature…’ They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter.

Vedantam writes:

Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counterintuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn’t a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has “the right to be wrong.”


I asked her about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. “You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues,” she told me. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to Ben Barres. “Ben has migrated into the center, whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”

Vedantam’s point, of course, isn’t to urge the less chromosomally privileged of us to change genders. It’s to shed light on an often invisible current of cultural advantage — on what it might be like to be the privileged player in a rigged game, or be the opposite. His most poignant illustration of that rig comes from an allegorical anecdote from his own biography, a beautiful and unsettling read. Vedantam recounts vacationing with his family on a tiny island in Mexico, where he got to experience a phenomenon that gave him profound perspective into how such biases work. He writes:

I have a complicated love affair with the water. I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. Well into my twenties, I carried the kind of unreasonable fear of water that you do not have if you learn to swim as a child. A considerable part of my enjoyment of the water lies in demonstrating to myself, over and over, that I have conquered my mortal fear. I am a decent swimmer, but I also know my fear has not completely disappeared. When things go wrong in the water, I easily panic.

After several dips, I decided to take one final excursion — this time around the edge of the bay. I felt happy and wonderful and fit; the water was calm. I suspected some of the best snorkeling lay around the edge of the rocks, two hundred fifty feet away. There were no signs posted that warned of any danger. With a good lunch in my stomach, I felt I could easily swim around the edge of the bay and back. I briefly thought about donning a life jacket and flippers, but decided against it. The life jacket would slow me down, and flippers don’t allow for the kind of maneuverability I like when I am snorkeling over a shallow reef.

The moment I got into the water and headed for the edge of the bay, I knew I had made the right decision to swim without a life jacket or flippers. I felt strong and good. I had done a lot of swimming that day already and was surprised at how smoothly I was kicking through the water. The trip would be child’s play; the way I was feeling, I knew I could easily swim well past the edge of the bay. I struck out purposefully to the lip of rocks. I imagined seeing myself from the deck chairs back on land, disappearing from view around the rocks.

The water felt suddenly cooler as I rounded the lip of the bay. It felt pleasant… My legs and arms felt stronger than ever. Each kick took me several feet; my technique was better than I remembered. I lengthened my stroke, feeling the pull of cool water against my torso. I felt graceful. Without realizing it, through steady practice, I had become a very good swimmer. I felt proud of myself.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from ‘Meanwhile.’ Click image for more.

When he eventually decided to turn around, he quickly became aware of a chilling trick that his brain, conspiring with the ocean, had played on him:

I pivoted and started to kick my way back. A particularly lovely piece of coral lay just beneath me. But as I watched for it to go by as I swam past, the coral did not budge. I kicked again and again. It was as though I were swimming in place, stuck with invisible glue to a single spot. My fear of the water, long dormant, opened one monstrous eye.

I instantly realized my grace and skill on the way out had not been grace and skill at all. I had been riding an undercurrent. I would now have to fight it on the way back. The reef did not look beautiful anymore. The water looked too deep. No one on land could see me. Why had I not worn a life jacket? How insane not to have donned flippers. I kicked and pulled and kicked and pulled. I was working much harder than before, but I was not traveling several feet with each stroke; each effort bought me mere inches. My breathing in my own ears sounded labored, a huge pair of bellows shouting over the din of the sea…

I lived the usual sedentary life of many urban professionals; my athletic exploits were mainly weekend heroics. What had made me think I was really fit enough to swim out so far when I had already exerted myself so much that day?

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from ‘Meanwhile.’ Click image for more.

Somehow, carried by an image of his two-year-old daughter on the shore, he mustered the seemingly impossible strength and fought his way back to land, arriving on the verge of collapse. More than a staggering reality check of his athletic capacity, however, the experience provided a perfect and chilling metaphor for how our cultural biases that produce privilege work. Vedantam writes:

Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent that took me out so far that day. When undercurrents aid us … we are invariably unconscious of them. We never credit the undercurrent for carrying us so swiftly; we credit ourselves, our talents, our skills. I was completely sure that it was my swimming ability that was carrying me out so swiftly that day. It did not matter that I knew in my heart that I was a very average swimmer, it did not matter that I knew that I should have worn a life jacket and flippers. On the way out, the idea of humility never occurred to me. It was only at the moment I turned back, when I had to go against the current, that I even realized the current existed.

Our brains are expert at providing explanations for the outcomes we see. People who swim with the current never credit it for their success, because it genuinely feels as though their achievements are produced through sheer merit. These explanations are always partially true — people who do well in life usually are gifted and talented. If we achieve success through corrupt means, we know we got where we are because we cheated. This is what explicit bias feels like. But when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And it isn’t just the people who flow with the current who are unconscious about its existence. People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill. It’s like a Zen riddle: If you never change directions, how can you tell there is a current?

Most of us — men and women — will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine. We may have our suspicions, but we cannot know for sure, because most men will never experience life as a woman and most women will never know what it is like to be a man. It is only the transgendered who have the moment of epiphany, when they suddenly face a current they were never really sure existed, or suddenly experience the relief of being carried by a force larger than themselves. The men and women who make this transition viscerally experience something that the rest of us do not. They experience the unfairness of the current.

The Hidden Brain is an altogether spectacular read, the kind that gives the best possible hope for changing our minds in the most necessary direction there is — toward more fairness, greater self-awareness, and a vital integration of our intentions and our actions.

Published April 9, 2014




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