skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXVI, No. 10
May 9, 2014
cover

next story


Uncovering Unconscious Bias
Is the ‘Hidden Brain’ Behind Some Health Disparities?

On the front page...

Shankar Vedantam, a science correspondent with National Public Radio, delivers a recent Deputy Director for Management seminar.
Shankar Vedantam, a science correspondent with National Public Radio, delivers a recent Deputy Director for Management seminar.
Turns out, it wasn’t the devil that made you do it. It was your “hidden brain.” That’s what Shankar Vedantam suggested at a recent lecture on unconscious bias at work, part of the 2013-2014 Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series. Vedantam said he “coined the term ‘hidden brain’ to describe mental activities that happen outside our conscious awareness.

“Is it possible,” he wondered, “that some of the [health] disparities we’re seeing are not the result of bad people behaving badly, but of well-intentioned people who are unintentionally doing the wrong thing? Is it possible that unconscious biases of well-intentioned people are responsible for these disparities that we observe?”

Continued...

A science correspondent with National Public Radio whose reporting focuses on human behavior and the sciences, Vedantam suggested that sometimes the snap judgments or preconceived notions we exhibit turn out to be wrong not because we’re evil people but because we’re not concentrating on what we’re doing. Our brains are, in a sense, functioning on autopilot.

To illustrate false moves we make automatically, Vedantam showed several optical illusions that indicated how unconscious bias doesn’t just distort perception, but often alters the way things really are.

“Our minds change reality to reflect the biases that we have inside our own heads,” he explained.

Reading, Vedantam said, is a perfect example of the hidden brain at work. Once you learn to read and are accustomed to reading, he said, your mind takes shortcuts. You naturally skip or fill in, without consciously thinking about it. Unlike a new reader, then, you don’t register every single word on a page. Otherwise, you’d spend all day reading just one page.

In the same way, Vedantam argues, your mind in many cases anticipates—pre-judges—situations throughout daily life.

Where do these pre-judgments come from and how do they develop? Vedantam said prejudices are evident in the brain as early as age 2 or 3. He suggested that while the shape that bias takes is often determined by our culture, our minds are in some ways hardwired to be receptive to biases, that “the brain has a built-in architecture for bias.” Our experiences shape brain content in subtle ways we don’t even perceive.

“The hallmark of these biases is that they affect us without our awareness,” he noted. “We have no awareness that we are making these mistakes as we make them.”

Vedantam has conducted in-depth observations of bias in behavior and documented his insights in a 2010 book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives.

Vedantam suggested that sometimes the preconceived notions we exhibit turn out to be wrong not because we’re evil people but because we’re not concentrating on what we’re doing.

Vedantam suggested that sometimes the preconceived notions we exhibit turn out to be wrong not because we’re evil people but because we’re not concentrating on what we’re doing.

Photos: Bill Branson

When it comes to hidden biases that allow us to read effortlessly or walk without paying attention to our balance, “these are not biases that suggest there’s something wrong with you,” Vedantam explained. “In fact, they suggest there is something right with you. This is exactly how you would want the brain to work. Much of the time the hidden brain plays a useful purpose…[but] there are times when the biases lead us astray.”

Indeed, some instances in which we’re led astray may have serious—even life-altering—consequences. Take the well-documented gaps in health among racial, ethnic and gender groups, for example. Vedantam shared several published studies of medical studies revealing bias:

  • Blacks are less likely to receive early stage lung cancer surgery than whites
  • Doctors are less likely to offer HIV drugs to African Americans possibly because of a fear of poor compliance
  • Hispanics with long-bone fractures were twice as likely as whites to get no pain meds in one medical setting
  • Knee replacement surgery has been documented to be recommended to men 22 times more often than to women.

“The effects of unconscious bias can actually be greater in our daily lives than the effects of conscious bias,” he said.

To prove his point, he showed data from several psychological tests in which respondents from across the nation made subtly discriminatory decisions on hiring/promoting a lab assistant, made judgments about the ability to study advanced math or decided who should receive medicine/surgery as well as who may have committed a crime. Results of each exercise revealed that large numbers of Americans may be vulnerable to such bias.

“Thinking about unconscious bias complicates our notion of what bias is and how bias works because it suggests that we cannot neatly divide the world into two groups, where one group is perpetrator and one group is victim,” Vedantam explained. “It suggests that at different times we can all be perpetrators and simultaneously we can all be victims.”

So, how do we overcome the effects that unconscious biases have on us? Vedantam says we can pay closer attention to our decision-making in certain situations, recognize the way we’re leaning and simply tug our minds in the opposite direction. In addition, since our environment shapes our mind, we can surround ourselves with experiences and friendships outside our comfort zone. If you broaden what goes into your thinking, then you broaden what comes out of it.

“Unconscious biases sometimes require conscious effort to overcome,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard to do everything consciously. At the same time, there are times when you are making decisions about the well-being or lives of other people. It’s at those times that it’s important not to rely on the quick, intuitive...approach. Choose instead the more deliberate, the persistent and careful approach.”

Vedantam answered audience questions that ranged from how to uncover the general origins of bias to how we can detect it in ourselves, despite the difficulty in becoming conscious of unconscious brain processes. He pointed out that in individual cases hidden brain choices can be hard to distinguish from legitimate decision-making. We should look at whole groups of cases and not try to identify wrongful prejudice in single incidents or encounters.

“Intuition is not a good guide to unconscious bias,” he concluded, “because in our hearts we always think of ourselves as good people without any biases.”

To learn more about Vedantam’s work on the topic, visit www.hiddenbrain.org/.


back to top of page