Monday, March 08, 2010

Thoughts occasioned by a book on the Hidden Brain

I recently heard a discussion by Shankar Vedantam about his book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. I was struck especially by three points which I will put in my own words, perhaps doing some violence to what he actually believes and said.
  • Very often we seek information in order to justify biases which we unconsciously hold rather than seek a broad range of information that will both challenge and support our preconceptions and thus lead to better understanding. Of course, finding confirmatory information when one refuses to see contrary information, does not lead to better decisions.
  • As social animals, we very often seek a social construction of past events and the appropriate response to those events. While this certainly must help build group cohesion, and may often lead to better understanding and decisions, it certainly takes time to reach consensus. Vedantam suggests that the social construction of response may be deadly in emergency situations.
  • We form lots of opinions through observation of things or people, often without any purpose of teaching by the person observed. If a child sees only people of one color as trusted by those in his environment, or sees only one gender in specific roles (e.g. doctors and nurses) they may form opinions that only people of that color are to be trusted or only people of one gender can play a given role. The unconsciously formed opinions may be very hard to overthrow by argument.
Vedantam must be correct in his riff on Freudian theory of the unconscious, in that a lot of our learning may be unconscious, and a lot of our behavior may be influenced by biases or preconceptions which we do not put into words.

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