The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam

The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives by Shankar Vedantam (Spiegel and Grau, $26.95)

This new book by a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post offers a fascinating summary of recent psychological findings on the unconscious mind.  Three of the ten chapters focus on race in various ways, while others analyze how the hidden brain’s implicit biases influence our behavior in matters including gender, disaster response, and terrorism.   The first chapter about race describes the research of Canadian scholar Frances Aboud, who has worked with children of all ages exploring the way bias develops.  Multiple researchers have found that young children tend to assign positive adjectives to white people and negative adjectives to black people, regardless of the beliefs of their parents and teachers.   (Also independent of the race of the respondent.)  Aboud discovered that friendships across racial lines are common among very young children but become steadily less so into adolescence.   But the same pattern was found with linguistic communities in Canada.  Aboud studied a bilingual school in Montreal and found that children coming from anglophone and francophone homes  increasingly choose friends of the same background as the get closer to adolescence.  Vedantam relates this to the increasing emphasis of adolescents on group membership and identification.  His conclusion about Aboud’s findings is that “What is disturbing to me…is not that children are biased.  It is that pervasive bias can occur without anyone—parents, teachers, or the children themselves—wanting it to happen.”(p. 75)

Racial bias in application of the death penalty in the US has been repeatedly demonstrated in statistical analyses, but in his chapter “Shades of Justice” Vedantam explains something that I had not previously known.   Studying only African American defendants, a Stanford University research team found that “Defendants who looked more stereotypically black than average were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty as those who looked less black.”(p. 177) This would suggest that implicit bias is not binary in black and white but rather a continuum, at least in the case of juries and defendants of color.  The last chapter focusing on race, “Disarming the Bomb,” is an account of the 2008 Obama campaign’s recognition of implicit bias, and its generally successful attempts at countering it.  Psychologist Drew Westen and pollster Celinda Lake are interviewed, and at the close of the chapter Westen is quoted as saying that Obama’s skin color “made a big difference” and “Had he looked like Kwame Kilpatrick, it is not at all clear to me that he could have made it.”(p. 229)

 This research is relevant to Melungeons and other mixed ancestry groups because it shows a pervasive unconscious bias against dark-skinned people, a bias against which darker people are themselves not immune.    This explains the tendency to genealogical dissociation, people cutting off darker branches of their family trees and denying/ignoring the mixed ancestry in their backgrounds.  At least we are now in the position where most Americans consciously reject racism, and thus can identify and analyze unconscious biases that are the legacy of centuries of oppression.  But being able to confront unconscious bias does not necessarily entail being willing to do so.