“The Hidden Brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives” is a wonderful book that I really enjoyed reading recently. The author, Shankar Vedantam, has a great conversational style and irrefutable objective data to draw some fascinating conclusions on the actions of that unconscious mind that we all host twenty-four hours a day. Not only does the reader find some eye-opening surprises to delight, but some disheartening realities about how the unconscious mind simply either cannot conceive of modern concepts or numbers or actually already biases our decisions on such important matters as race or gender bias without our conscious ever being aware of it, yes actually with our conscious “consciously” fighting against the bias!
In my opinion, the most fascinating tidbit from the book was the description of simple written tests that can empirically measure unconscious racial bias without the tester ever knowing or being aware of such bias in expression or hidden opinion. His inside information on how those tests were used to fine-tune the Obama Campaign’s media content and approach during the 2008 presidential election are alone worth the price of the book.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here, and apply those same biases to sexual orientation based on Mr. Vedantam’s examples. It’s not difficult to do. I was a little disappointed that Mr. Vedantam didn’t provide more examples of sexual orientation bias, but he does provide some powerful experiments employing transgendered people to prove how sexual bias in general predisposes the environment for all of us. Sometimes it’s too easy to assume that the conscious rational “civilized” mind always has the upper hand and the “driver’s seat” in what we do. As a proud gay man who has struggled to come out in a biased world, I would love to fantasize that, all things being equal, a reasonable person presented with the facts would come to the same conclusions I have as a fellow reasonable person. Unfortunately, the lessons this book have provided give me a different conclusion: sometimes it is of no use to appeal to the conscious rational person when the pivot point of the issue in question is already prejudiced, totally unconsciously, by biases over which the other person has absolutely no control or awareness. To use a specific example: I fully support the celebration and historical value of Gay Pride parades to celebrate who we are, where we’ve come from, what we as a GLBT community have in common, and to frankly have a little fun in the spotlight for once. However, those straight people who are disgusted by the first split-second image of a scantily-clad or “promiscuous looking” celebrant will never overcome their bias against their own unconscious disgust of such an image, and our related arguments to that person on totally different levels of logic will fail…EVEN IF that person has made an overriding conscious decision to disassociate that image with gay people in general. This does not mean that hiding is ever appropriate, but rather, that we as a community subject to bias need to know what we’re up against, use the right tools to overcome that bias, and work ever harder to change our culture so that bias may be negated at some point in the future. Two final thoughts: My description of The Hidden Brain is already much more boring than the book itself…the author’s conversational style reminded me of a great college lecture with humor and constant multimedia; and, as a disclaimer, the book titles above are linked to my affiliate account at Amazon, so if you click the link above and buy the book from Amazon it will help support my blog and I’ll be forever grateful!