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The Unconscious Politics That Shape Our World, Choose Presidents and Save or Destroy Lives

There is increasing scientific evidence that human behavior is not rational or conscious, and may be completely programmed without logic or knowledge.

Scientists are finding more and more evidence that human behavior is not rational, not conscious and may be completely programmed without logic or knowledge. These unconscious drives affect jury decisions, elections, wars, our everyday experiences and can sometimes determine life and death. This is the subject of two recent books: Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save our Lives, and Guillermo Jimenez's Red Genes, Blue Genes, Exposing Political Irrationality. Both demonstrate irrationality but from slightly from different places. We recently discussed these phenomena with the authors.

Maria Armoudian: Shankar Vedantam, you open your book with a rape case in which both the victim and the jury and everyone else involved all erred and sent the wrong person to prison -- for 13 years. Why did that happen?

Shankar Vedantam: This is a really tragic story, involving a woman, Toni Gustus, who was raped in Massachusetts. She was a remarkably conscientious eyewitness and took great pains during the crime to memorize the rapist's features. But over the course of the next weeks and months, as police showed her images of people whom they thought might be potential suspects, her memory of the case degraded, and she was pretty sure the police had the right person. But there was a little bit of a doubt at the back of her mind. When she spent that Christmas with her family at a church that had long been a source of comfort and solace, her doubt slipped away, and she told herself that she had gotten the man.

As it turned out, a DNA test conducted about a decade later showed that this man could not have been the criminal. The point, of course, is that we regularly think that people's intentions are decisive, that if someone means to be a good eyewitness or a good juror, judge or politician, that they are a good juror, judge or politician. It turns out that there is much in our lives that lies outside the boundaries of our conscious awareness, and in this church where Toni Gustus' doubts slipped away, in some ways reassurance and solace were not her friends in this situation. Her doubt at the back of her mind was actually her friend because it was telling her something is not quite right about this situation.

MA: So her emotions over the course of the investigation and in that particular environment -- the church -- ultimately led her to make the misjudgment?

SV: I think that's right. The ironic thing is that you can see why it would be most understandable for her to seek a situation where she was comforted and had some solace, but she was also in a situation where she was being asked to make a very difficult judgment. So without her intending to make a mistake, and with her intending to do things exactly right, she made this mistake. And she was a really conscientious, diligent person, someone whom I respect and regard very highly, so if this mistake can happen to Toni Gustus it can happen to any of us.

MA: Similarly, you point out the unconscious roles with race and gender. Even when people are conscientiously trying not to have prejudices, they are still programmed and affect us.

SV: Yes, the unconscious bias affects our romantic decisions, our financial decisions, our moral decisions, our political decisions. One of the domains is the question of unconscious prejudice. The striking thing here is that we pay a lot of attention to hate crimes or people who explicitly say racist things or sexist things. But it turns out that at an unconscious level, prejudice exists in very large numbers of people, perhaps even among most people. These effects are subtle; they're not the person who is burning a cross on someone else's lawn. This is a person who may have an unconscious association in [his or her] head. But when asked to make a decision about whether somebody is guilty or innocent of a crime, or whether to hire someone for a job, these unconscious associations play very powerful roles, especially because most people do not believe the unconscious exists. And so we have no way to guard against the manipulation because we don't even realize that we're being manipulated.

MA: One of the most convincing parts of your book dealing with gender bias was the experiences of transgendered people. People who transgendered from women to men suddenly -- although the same person, same qualifications, same education -- had a better income, opportunity and less interruptions.

SV: That's right. There is abundant research showing that, on average, women are not paid the same as men and face all kinds of challenges compared to men. But when you're asked to make a judgment about any individual person -- say Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election -- it's very difficult to apply the general research on bias to an individual, because with any individual circumstance, there are many other factors: How good a candidate is Hillary Clinton, what are her positions on the issues; what's the competition like? And so on.