The Hidden Brain.

I’ve become a huge fan of the NPR prodcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, a journalist whose 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives spawned the podcast and a regular radio program on NPR. Covering how our subconscious mind influences our decisions in ways that traditional economists would call ‘irrational’ but modern behavioral economists recognize as typical human behavior, Vedantam’s book is a great introduction to this increasingly important way of understanding how people act and think.

Vedantam walks the reader through these theories via concrete examples, much as he now does in the podcast – this week’s episode, “Why Now?” about the #MeToo movement and our society’s sudden decision to pay attention to these women, is among its best. Some of the stories in the book are shocking and/or hard to believe, but they’re true and serve to emphasize these seemingly counterintuitive concepts. He discusses a rape victim who had focused on remembering details about her attacker, and was 100% sure she’d correctly identified the man who raped her – but thirteen years after the man she identified was convicted of the crime, a DNA test showed she was wrong, and she then discovered a specific detail she’d overlooked at the time of the investigation because no one asked her the ‘right’ question. This is a conscientious, intelligent woman who was certain of her memories, and she still made a mistake.

Another example that particularly stuck with me was how people react in the face of imminent danger or catastrophe. Just before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the sea receded from coastal areas, a typical feature before a tidal wave hits. Vedantam cites reports from multiple areas where people living in those regions “gathered to discuss the phenomenon” and “asked one another what was happening,” instead of running like hell for high ground. Similar reports came from the World Trade Center after 9/11. People in those instances didn’t rely on their instincts to flee, but sought confirmation from others nearby – if you don’t run, maybe I don’t need to run either. In this case, he points to the evolutionary history of man, where staying with the group was typically the safe move in the face of danger; if running were the dominant, successful strategy for survival, that would still be our instinct today. It even explains why multiple bystanders did not help Deletha Word, a woman who was nearly beaten to death in a road-rage incident on the packed Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1996 – if no one else helped her, why should I?

Vedantam’s writing and speaking style offers a perfect blend of colloquial storytelling and evidence-based arguments. He interviews transgender people who describe the changes attitudes they encounter between before and after their outward appearances changed. (One transgender man says, “I can even complete a whole sentence [post-transition] without being interrupted by a man.) And he looks at data on racial disparities in sentencing convicted criminals to death – including data that show darker-skinned blacks are more likely to receive a death sentence than lighter-skinned blacks.

The last chapter of The Hidden Brain came up last week on Twitter, where I retweeted a link to a story in the New York Times from the wife of a former NFL player, describing her husband’s apparent symptoms of serious brain trauma. One slightly bizarre response I received was that this was an “appeal to emotion” argument – I wasn’t arguing anything, just sharing a story I thought was well-written and worth reading – because it was a single datum rather than an extensive study. Vedantam points out, with examples and some research, that the human brain does much better at understanding the suffering of one than at understanding the suffering of many. He tells how the story of a dog named Hokget, lost in the Pacific on an abandoned ship, spurred people to donate thousands of dollars, with money coming from 39 states and four countries. ( An excerpt from this chapter is still online on The Week‘s site.) So why were people so quick to send money to save one dog when they’re so much less likely to send money when they hear of mass suffering, like genocide or disaster victims in Asia or Africa? Because, Vedantam argues, we process the suffering of an individual in a more “visceral” sense than we do the more abstract suffering of many – and he cites experimental data from psychologist Paul Slovic to back it up.

The Hidden Brain could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured it; Vedantam’s writing is much like his podcast narration, breezy yet never dumbed down, thoroughly explanatory without becoming dense or patronizing. If you enjoy books in the Thinking Fast and Slow or Everybody Lies vein, you’ll enjoy both this title and the podcast, which has become one of my go-to listens to power me through mindless chores around the house.