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The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  2,295 ratings  ·  308 reviews
Most of us would agree that there’s a clear and even obvious connection between the things we believe and the way we behave. But what if our actions are driven not by our conscious values and beliefs but by hidden motivations we’re not even aware of?

The “hidden brain” is Shankar Vedantam’s shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processe
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 19th 2010 by Spiegel & Grau (first published December 22nd 2009)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
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Nikhil P. Freeman
Jan 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Those who have never taken the implicit associations test
Just did not like the book. Covered a lot of ground--most of the things a person would learn in a social psychology class--but the presentation of different biases were lost to verbose anecdotes. The stories to explain the biases would get so long and cumbersome that I would forget his original point--and all of his points I already knew or heard before elsewhere. Every story was literally 50 words too long.

I was expecting a more neuroscience driven explanation for unconscious behavior/biases,
Jan 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, psychology

After the way Freud's theories have been discredited, you might think the notion of the unconscious has disappeared from psychology.

But Shankar Vedantam, a staff writer for the Washington Post, brilliantly resurrects the concept with modern-day experiments done by social psychologists and brain imaging experts to show how much of our lives is controlled by impulses and biases that we are completely unaware of.

For each type of influence exerted by the hidden brain, Vedantam gives gripping example
Jun 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This would have received a 4, even a 4.5 up until the last two chapters. Vedantam does a great job with the writing--it's engaging and interesting. However, when I got to the "Defusing the Bomb" chapter, I couldn't help but feel that Vedantam had his own agenda and own point to get across--regardless of science. This chapter is the longest in the book (43 pages) and it is redundant and the actual evidence is weak. Even in the last chapter (about gun control) I felt the shift from presenting evid ...more
Book Riot Community
I made an informal pledge to read more nonfiction this year, and I started off with this one. It’s a good thing I really enjoyed the discussions in this book as it makes me more likely to stick to my goal!

–Sarah Nicolas

from The Best Books We Read In January 2017:
Kaethe Douglas
Vedantam's reporting is one of my favorite things on NPR. His beat is the most practical psychology: why do people do that? Actually he reports on insights from many different fields, but the research is always looking at the epidemiology, to borrow his metaphor. Not the medical or social explanation for why some individual did something, but for the broad patterns of brain subroutines working beneath and behind conscious thought: that's the hidden brain.
What Vedantam has so brilliantly synthesi
Jul 21, 2011 rated it liked it
What I liked about this book: Its storytelling. Vedantam rounds up all kinds of anecdotes and interviews all kinds of characters to look at how the unconscious mind shapes everything from how much a waitress is tipped to whether or not someone is sentenced to death. Particularly fascinating to me was the section on gender discrimination, in which Vedantam contrasts the experiences of two Stanford professors -- one who transitioned from male-to-female and the other who went female-to-male. Powerf ...more
Jun 20, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting read, especially in combination with my other current book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.


Listening to this for the Goodreads Summer Reading Challenge. Cue: "Back to school: Read a book about a subject you don't know much about."
Ismail Elshareef
Oct 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The author tries to accomplish two things throughout this book: Explain how the hidden brain works and how it influences human behavior. He doesn't, however, explain how the hidden brain has evolved or how it can be changed, which to me is a crucial and expected takeaway when reading about the subject of the hidden, or unconscious, brain.

We come to understand through the extensive psychological research put into this book the reasons behind racial biases, prejudices, sexism and suicide bombings
Rabbit {Paint me like one of your 19th century gothic heroines!}
The Hidden Brain aka the douche bag brain meme tbh. Our brains and bodies are really weird. It gets even worse when you look at the collective hidden brain of societies as a whole, as our species as a whole. We are still responsible for our actions. Instincts/intuition is important, but we need to also have our reason and logic. It's a delicate balance. This book made me want to make memes tbh. ...more
Feisty Harriet
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: brains
A little bit "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, and a little bit "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, this book explores our unconscious minds, our snap decisions, our "gut" feelings, and how we acquire and even overcome them. Really interesting. ...more
Gordon Stock
Jun 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book is full of interesting information, but the presentation is lacking. It is obvious that the author comes from a scientific background, he is often repetitive in relaying the information and not straightforward enough. Overall, interesting but not incredible.
Dec 29, 2014 rated it liked it

I can't really improve on Nikhil P. Freeman's Jul 26, 2011 review, so go read that.

I will just add that my disappointment with this book is probably due to a mismatch between what it is and what I had wanted it to be. What it is: a lightweight, heavily anecdotal introduction to the idea of implicit bias and unconscious decision-making. What I expected: a more in-depth, scientific exploration of the hows and whys. Vedantam cites many studies I've seen discussed elsewhere in more detail--which ma
Sep 21, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
It wasn't that bad. It had some good points, but nothing mind blowing. To me personally, it lacked depth. It seemed like I was reading a compilation of real life events that can be analyzed in psychological context. And the analysis was average at the very best. The stories where way too long with way too much unnecessary detail. For example:

"It was a lovely April morning in South Philadelphia. Raymond Fiss left his home at seven-thirty carrying a brown bag—lunch his wife, Marie, had packed for
May 11, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
The author introduces an interesting idea - not a new concept but rather names something that has already been discussed.

He goes at great length to present the evidence for his claims and he does so mostly by using very detailed stories and forces the reader to take many off-road trips that often make you lose the sight of the point being proved.

What really bothers me though, that despite all the details put into stories (often unnecessary too) and despites author's obvious interest in topics o
Apr 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives," is a fascinating and well-documented expose of what goes on behind the "closed doors" of the human consciousness. Shankar Vedantam brings his journalistic story-telling and researching skills to bear on a fascinating topic, and makes his points powerfully. I found the relatively few instances of evolutionary explanation for our mammalian brain's grip on our biases to be cogent and conv ...more
Pete Wung
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
The author, Shankar Vedantam, is the host of the popular NPR program by the same name. He started looking into what he termed the hidden brain when he became curious about many decisions that people made that just didn't make rational sense. He, like everyone else, assumed that we make our best decisions by relying upon our rational mind. He sensed that this was not accurate description of the procedure by which we make all of our decisions and he sought to investigate the process by which we ma ...more
Apr 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
On the surface, this was about the same topic as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - the two ways our brain processes information. But this was considerably better. The Kahneman book presented the unconscious brain, responsible for fast thought and (often incorrect) instinctual responses and biases as pretty uniformly bad. This book acknowledged that the unconscious brain or "hidden" brain often makes incorrect decisions, but acknowledged that we cannot stop that from happening. We can ...more
Nick Rolston
May 06, 2020 rated it liked it
This book is based around the principles of "Thinking Fast and Slow" while using Gladwell's anecdotal style from "Talking to Strangers". I was hoping for a bit more substance, as while some of the stories are compelling, I thought that the message could be communicated with a much shorter narrative. In particular, I thought the section on racial bias was long-winded and not as insightful. However, the psychology of groupthink behind the Jonestown cult and lack of reaction during emergency situat ...more
Stacie Kenney
Dec 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bookshelf
The data and facts in this book are stunning. Thirty thousand people kill themselves every year in the US... 30,000, which is more than ten times the number of Americans who died on 9/11. The hidden brain is strong and stealthy, making families feel more secure with guns, when in fact they are more at risk of hurting themselves. This is just a small insight into this facinating book. However I do wish there was more at the end regarding how to curb the hidden brain than the one page designated t ...more
Dec 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
I’ve heard Hidden Brain on NPR a lot and I am always fascinated by the topics (and neurology in general) and this was no different. The hidden biases we all have are truly fascinating, and the fact that he didn’t give solutions was actually okay with me. Because there really may not be any.

The big drawback here is that these biases are best explained with shorter anecdotes, and the stories here were anything but. I found my mind wandering often. There were lots of different topics, some done bet
Jessica Zu
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Tagore once said “who you are you do not see, what you see is your shadow.” You’ll understand the meaning of this verse when you finished reading this book.
Moh. Nasiri
Sep 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
We are programmed to trust our memories, judgments and perceptions.
مغز پنهان ما

Our unconscious lives help us navigate the world, fostering our relationships, and regulating our social behavior. Yet many of us aren’t aware of our susceptibility to biases and errors. By learning about the hidden brain, we can use our knowledge of unconscious bias to design more effective social an economic institutions.

Most of us believe that we behave according to knowledge and conscious intention. Not only does
Nonfiction-- KCM
Jun 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
In this text, Vedantam employs specific examples in service of his thesis that our unconscious minds control much of our lives and make us naturally behave in ways that are biased and irrational. Most people believe their conscious brains to be in control, when, in reality, deeper forces that relate to group solidarity govern many of our hasty and unexamined decisions. One of Vedantam’s most powerful examples details what happened with people from the same company on the 88th and 89th floors of ...more
Feng Ouyang
Mar 18, 2017 rated it liked it
1. Introduction
a. Unconscious bias: we do things that are not consistent with our rational intention.
b. Story of mis-identification, teaching us a few lessons
i. Even when a person who is deliberate in nature and want to be especially deliberate under the circumstance, she can still be tricked by subconscious
ii. We pay attention to the unusual and ignore the usual.
iii. Discomfort helps us to focus on rational cognitive tasks. Being comfortable means we let subconscious take control.
iv. Tragic res
Jose Lobato
Jun 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It is the second time I read this book, and indeed, it won't be the last. "The Hidden Brain" is still one of my favorites texts. The last time I read this book, in fact, I did not "read" it, I listen to it. At the time I was running a lot and remember not stopping running until the chapter was finished. I also remember my expressions as some of the data was discovered in the book.

All of the chapters are gold, but the last ones are just inspiring. The data giving and the reasoning around it makes
Dec 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
I'm a fan of the Shankar Vedantam-helmed Hidden Brain podcast, and this book is written around similar themes. In popular culture the subconscious is often used to explain away hidden desires or true intentions, but Vedantam probes into the idea that these beliefs can be more largely explained in the context of a group. The "hidden brain" is responsible for a lot of troubling narratives surrounding why humanity isn't more moral or caring on a pragmatic level. At first this is hard to reconcile - ...more
Apr 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, health
This book is about "the hidden brain" or the unconscious biases from the old Stone Age brain that influence us everyday. It used neuroscience and psycholgy to give a balanced an throughtful view of events and behaviors. Whether it was guns do more harm through suicide and accidents in the home that defending the home from danger to people seeking consensus in a diaster or how it influences criminal sentencing.

For me the biggest take away is that we're all racist - even me. It made me reevaluate
Jan 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Really insightful book. It gets a bit off-track on long stories to prove points, such as with the Jonestown cult chapter, but that was interesting and I hadn't read about it much before, so I didn't mind too much. Sometimes, the author can be repetitive in making points. But on the whole, it's a great expose of how and why people unconsciously can be prejudiced and make bad decisions and being aware of this can help us more critically think why we feel how we feel about certain issues. ...more
Apr 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Vedantam tackles tough issues such as racism and genocide and shows how our "hidden brain" with its systems that evolved over many centuries to tackle survival issues may be influencing our decision making without our conscious awareness. Probably the most interesting chapter for me was the one on terrorists and what drives their behavior. Provocative, well-written and, in the final analysis, optimistic about our chances of a better, more moral world. ...more
Apr 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book gives well-researched insights into how our unconscious thought processes have an impact on everything from how we vote to our reaction (or lack thereof) to genocide. Especially valuable are its policy implications and examples of how this knowledge can be used to influence others. Vedantam does a great job of pointing out what is hopeful and what is disturbing in these discoveries and their implications.
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Shankar Vedantam is host of the Hidden Brain podcast and public radio show and the author of The Hidden Brain, a New York Times national bestseller. He lives in Washington, DC.

Articles featuring this book

  If you listen to NPR regularly, you’ve likely heard the voice of Shankar Vedantam, the longtime science correspondent and host of the radio...
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“Author compares the impact of biases to his experience as an average swimmer who overcame a considerable fear of water. While the swimming was easy in one particular experience, he was internally congratulating himself on his acquired skill. But when he realized he was swimming with a current he would now have to fight against, he realized just how definite his limits were.” 2 likes
“There might well be deep evolutionary reasons for these fears; it made sense, millennia ago, to fear situations where we had no control and situations that involved malevolent attackers. In our modern world, however, the things we really ought to fear are almost entirely of our own doing. Failing to climb the stairs and get enough exercise kills far more people than any number of murderers climbing those stairs. You are at far greater risk of taking your own life than being killed by a terrorist. If you were to go strictly by the numbers, that cigarette in your hand ought to have you screaming louder than a chance encounter with Hannibal Lecter.” 1 likes
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