Scientists are finding more and more evidence that human behaviour is not rational, not conscious, and maybe completely programmed without our rational thinking. How does the unconscious mind and biological predispositions effect political outcomes and prejudice biases? Maria Armoudian speaks with Guillermo Jiménez and Shankar Vedantam.

Guillermo Jiménez is an Associate professor of international trade at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is the author of Red Genes, Blue Genes: Exposing Political Irrationality.

Shankar Vedantam is a journalist for NPR. He is the author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.


Maria Armoudian: You both talk about irrationality but you are approaching it slightly from different places. Why don’t we start with Shankar and your findings: you, give an example of a rape victim that made a mistake in identifying her rapist. You say this was an unconscious thing that happened to her that was partly determined by her mood and emotions and other unconscious things. Explain that?

SV: Well this is a really tragic story involving a woman called Toni Gustus who was raped in Massachusetts about twenty years ago. And what distinguished her, I think, is that she was a remarkably conscientious eyewitness, she took great pains during the crime to memorise the features of the man who was committing the crime. But over the course of the next weeks and months as police showed her many, many images of people who they thought might be suspects and then eventually the person whom they thought was the suspect who committed the crime, her memory of the case degraded to some extent and she was pretty sure that the police had the right person but there was a little bit of doubt at the back of her mind. And she spent that Christmas with her family at a church that had long been a source of comfort and solace for her and while sitting in the church her doubt slipped away and she told herself that she had gotten the man, that it was the person who had raped her. As it turned out, a DNA test conducted about a decade later showed that this man could not have been the criminal and it prompted Toni Gustus to go through a very lengthy period of recrimination and wondering how she could have made the error she made. The point that I was trying to make is that we regularly think that people’s intentions are decisive, that if someone means to be a good eyewitness, or a good juror, or a good judge, or a good politician, that they are a good juror, judge, or politician. It turns out there is much in our lives that lies outside the boundaries of our conscious awareness, and in this church where Toni Gustus’s doubts slipped away, in some ways I make the argument that reassurance and solace were not her friends in this situation. Her doubt that was in the back of her mind was actually her friend because it was telling her ‘Something is not quite right’.

MA: What had happened in particular with this is there were all these emotions that had come into place and that had her make a misjudgement?

SV: I think that is right and the ironic thing was in this case is that she was someone who had been through a traumatic event and you can see why it would be most understandable for her to seek a situation where she was comforted and had some solace from the situation. But she was also in a position where she was being asked to make a very difficult judgement. And the point I was trying to make is that without her intending to make a mistake, in fact intending for her to do things exactly right she was a really conscientious, diligent person, she still made this mistake and if the mistake can happen to Toni Gustus it can happen to any of us.

MA: Now you have talked about some other really important phenomena that deal with race, gender, and even when people are conscientiously tying not to have that be an issue, they are still programmed.

SV: Indeed, I look at the question of the unconscious very broadly and how unconscious bias effects our romantic decisions, our financial decisions, our moral decisions, our political decisions. And one of the domains I explore at length is the question of unconscious prejudice. There has been an explosion of research in the last twenty years looking at unconscious prejudice: how to measure it, what effects it has. And the striking thing again 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. And these effects are subtle, they are not the person who is burning a cross on someone’s lawn, this is a person who may have an unconscious association in their head. But when they are asked to make a decision about whether someone 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 realise that we are being manipulated.

MA: I thought one of the most convincing parts of your research was dealing with gender bias and the only way they could really measure it was with transgendered people. And so here you had somebody who transitioned from a woman to a man and suddenly same person, same qualifications, same education and the income went up and the interruption stopped.

SV: That’s right. So the challenge I was trying to explore was that there is abundant research showing that on average women are not paid the same as men, they face all kinds of challenges compared to men. But when you are asked to make a judgement about any individual person, say Hillary Clinton, it is very difficult to apply the general research on bias to an individual because in any individual circumstance there are many other factors, you know how good a candidate was Hillary Clinton, what are her positions on the issues, what is the competition like, and so on. But then I realised that there was a group of people who in effect could become their own control groups and these were people who are transgender. And I found remarkably that there was research that showed when men transitioned to being women their hourly salaries drop and often drop quite dramatically. When women transition to being men their hourly salaries on average rise.

But the real effects of sexism are actually much subtler than just a question of salary. Men who become women experience losses of all kinds of privileges that they didn’t know they had and women who become men experience the relief in some ways of being carried by a current that they didn’t even know existed and that is stronger than them in some ways. The transgendered who themselves, of course, face many challenges because they are transgendered offer us a very powerful and insightful window into the nature of sexism.

MA: There is one other phenomenon I wanted to have you talk about and that is this story of a young woman Deletha Word and how she was essentially tortured and beaten to death among a crowd of people who stood there aghast at what was happening but nobody took action. You said that if one person would have taken action perhaps the whole crowd would have moved?

SV: I think this phenomenon actually has been widely described for a long period of time as the bystander effect in psychology. And there have been many cases like this, the Kitty Genovese case some years ago in New York for example, showing that often when terrible things unfold, we intuitively believe that it is a good thing to have many people around because if there are many people then surely there will be some Good Samaritans among them. It turns out that the opposite is true, that you are more likely to have people come to your aid and assistance when there are a few people, rather than many people. The insight that I have tried to bring to this research is to try and show that the bystander effect doesn’t just affect our ability to act in the service of other people, it affects our ability to act in the service of ourselves. And I try and show that in disaster settings when we receive an ambiguous warning of disaster, the same thing happens when we are confronted by somebody else who is in danger. When we are surrounded by large groups of people in some ways, groups rob us of our autonomy and our ability to act in intentional ways. And there is very compelling research showing that these forces played a very large role in the events that unfolded on the morning of September 11, 2001 in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre in particular.

MA: And the south tower in particular because?

SV: Well the south tower was the second tower to be hit and there was a sixteen-minute window between when the first tower was hit and the second tower was hit. And my research into this talks about how there was a financial trading firm that was spread over the 88th and 89th floor of the South Tower and everyone over one floor had escaped the building and survived, whereas nearly everyone on the other floor stayed behind at their desks and perished. And my point was not so much that one group made the right decision and one group made the wrong decision – we know, of course, the group that left made the right decision but we know that in hindsight. The point is that in crises people tend to act together, people are either silent together or they either act together, they either intervene together or they are passive together, they either flee together or they stay at their desks together. Groups rob us of our autonomy when crises break out and this is something that has a great deal of consequence not just in our ability to act in moral ways but for our ability to protect ourselves and those we love in times of disaster.

MA: Guillermo Jimenez, you actually bring an extra element into this which has to do with the genetic part, a biological predisposition towards political outcomes.

GJ: One of the arguments I make is that not all of us but most of us are born with a left or right political predisposition and that influences our political orientation throughout our lives in kind of the unconscious or unperceived way that Shankar was talking about. So the great majority of us do have some political bias that we are guilty of, but we tend to not perceive it because it lies in the unconscious and we have a lot of techniques of self-deception to prevent that from rising to our consciousness. But we perceive it very well in the other party. I mean that is one of the funny things about irrationality is that we can see it in others but not in ourselves.

MA: You have talked about how you were watching Orrin Hatch and from every fibre of your being everything that you saw, heard, everything made you recoil. You said in essence his DNA really upset your DNA. And you said that this was especially now prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum and this political irrationality is driven by a number of phenomena. The question I think I am trying to get to is how much of it is this media blitz people get from both sides and how much of it is really a distinction between them?

GJ: The research I studied is very interesting. There is a professor named John Hibbing that has done some ground-breaking research in the field of the biological bases of our political dispositions. One of his experiments got a group of people that he had categorised as very liberal or very conservative and he exposed them to these startling stimuli like loud noises, gruesome photos, and then he measured their involuntary responses. And what he found was that the people that were more instinctively fearful, that corresponded with conservative political orientation. In other words, those people were more likely to support defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism. Whereas the people who showed a calmer, less fearful instinctive response were more likely to support pacifism, liberal immigration policies, foreign aid and so forth. And what that suggests is that there is a biological component which may be slight or may be slender but is definitely present and detectable in our political opinions. And what is shocking about that is that we don’t perceive it ourselves, we think we come to all of our political opinions through some exercise of logic or reason. I argue that it is about fifty percent genetics. But what is even more concerning is that on top of the genetic layer we also have a cultural layer which also reinforces biases and prejudices. So most of us end up doubly prejudiced or biased in our politics partially through biological inheritance and partially from our social upbringing.

MA: Shankar what would you add?

SV: Well I certainly think there are some biological predispositions to political orientation. The thing that I find fascinating about the divide is twofold. One, why is it so much more intense today than it was say fifty or one hundred years ago? You know our biology hasn’t changed, but if you look at the number of Democrats who are passionately against Donald Trump, the gap is just extraordinary today compared to where it was one hundred years ago. The other thing that I find really intriguing, and this is really in some ways a puzzle to me, is when you look at many of the issues that divide liberals and conservatives, they don’t fall along what you would call logical patterns. For example, conservatives are against government intervention in general and they want a hands-off laissez-faire policy. But when it comes to abortion or family values issues, they want a very interventionist government policy, they want the government to be involved in running peoples lives and telling people here is what is appropriate and here is what’s not.

I am not trying to point out here that one side is being hypocritical because both sides are guilty of this. The interesting thing is why it is that people don’t see these inconsistencies themselves, that when you are on one side there is nothing that your side does that is wrong and there is nothing that the other side can do that feels right. I have seen some very interesting research from political science that argues that in many ways the driver behind partisanship is the same driver that is behind our passion for sports. I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan and when I think about it, it is absurd to be a fan of any single football team because these are players that are interchangeably going between the different teams, they just happen to be wearing one set of colours. But when I am watching a game, my team can do no wrong and every ambiguous call that the referee makes I say ‘Well they made a mistake’. And I think the same thing has happened at the political level as well that we sort of identify with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party the same way that we identify with sports teams and that in some ways causes us to fail to see the inconsistencies of our own positions and fail to see the weaknesses in our own side or any good in the other side.

MA: You know there was some research done a while back in political psychology that showed that membership of a group, even if it is completely arbitrary, automatically creates an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ and creates competition. Perhaps that is a missing element and that is the thing that needs to be understood. Guillermo you have talked about this phenomenon, what do you have to say?

GJ: I think the example of the sporting contest is a great one and was actually used in a lot of the psychology research. Students are assigned to watch a basketball game and they are randomly assigned to one of the teams. And what we discovered was that within minutes they become very biased in favour of that team and that is quite similar to the bias that we exhibit on behalf of our political parties. But I would say to his point: why is it increasing, why are we perceiving it to be such a problem these days?

Well there are a number of reasons. The first thing I would say is there are some political scientists at Princeton, Nolan McCarty and Keith Poole [and Howard Rosenthal] who wrote a book called Polarized America that studied the history of polarisation in Congress, and they found that polarisation in congress increases in times of economic stress. And when we are trying to rewrite our fundamental social contracts, it kind of makes sense that we will get more polarised. But on top of that, you have the phenomenon of the modern media and the internet. Nowadays we can get all of our information from biased news sources and a lot of people do. I mean there are a lot of people that watch Fox News and then they read the Wall Street Journal and they read Ann Coulter’s books and they are not going to get a very fair and balanced view of reality. And then finally on top of that you add the modern media circus which makes money from this conflict. And the great example is during political campaigns where all of the media giants run political shows all day long. And how do they get eyeballs to those shows? It is by presenting figures like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, divisive figures that rile up our emotions and get our eyeballs glued to those TVs. So we have a number of factors working together which have given us this kind of perfect storm of polarisation that we are now in.

MA: I would actually like to also bring in the issues of fear and loathing which you say are the most dangerous parts of political irrationality.

GJ: Yeah, well I think we need to fear political irrationality. I think the insight I want to get across is that we have to examine it in ourselves and we have to be weary of political appeals to fear and to hatred. Right now, I think the problem is that politicians attract our attention by creating fear in people. Liberals can be as guilty of this as conservatives. Conservatives present a frightening picture of liberal statists who want to control your lives, and liberals present this counter-portrait of hateful, racist, corporate, warmongering conservatives. The result is not a happy one for political environments in general.

MA: That reminds me of something that Shankar wrote, which was about terrorism and extremism and how there is no real psychological profile that is different between a suicide bomber and somebody else. What does this mean to us?

SV: Well this looked specifically at extreme behaviour and I tried to make the argument that even though it seems as if terrorists come from dysfunctional backgrounds or dysfunctional personalities, there has been systematic research conducted among people who attempted to be suicide bombers, their missions failed and they are in prisons all over the world, and the research into these people shows that they are hardly more aberrational than the rest of us. In many ways they may suffer from pure mental illness, they seem to be more idealistic than the rest of us, and nor is it the case that they are particularly more religious than the rest of us. And I found this particularly striking, if you look at the history of suicide terrorism, religion turns out to be neither necessary nor sufficient as an explanatory factor for suicide terrorism. What is common to suicide terrorism in different eras from the Japanese kamikaze bombers in the closing days of World War Two to the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers in the 1980s to the various suicide terrorist outfits today, is that suicide terrorists are typically formed in an environment where they are essentially cut off from the outside world. And in our normal lives, most of us get pulled in different directions, you know, we have ties to our families and our churches and religions and sports teams and professions and this creates stress in our lives. But for the suicide bomber, the suicide bomber goes into what I call ‘the tunnel’ and within ‘the tunnel’ the person doesn’t face the conflicts of the outside world. All of the reference points within ‘the tunnel’ are the reference points created by people within their own group and when you have this, what you have is a dynamic called small group psychology that takes over. And one of the things that small group psychology can accomplish is it can change the norms of what is good and bad behaviour. So what seems aberrational to us outside ‘the tunnel’ can become aspirational to people within ‘the tunnel’. And so when we ask why do suicide bombers do this thing what we are not taking into account is that we are standing outside ‘the tunnel’, we are not seeing how the norms have been systematically turned upside down within ‘the tunnel’ that is the suicide bombers framework.

MA: And that, of course, is very much like what Philip Zimbardo has taught us in terms of what he calls the Lucifer Effect. Guillermo Jimenez you talk about these entire histories that are completely different from left and right and what ends up taking us to war. Talk about taking us to war and how the left and right see this in opposites.

GJ: Probably the most eminent scientist in this whole field is a man at Princeton – Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2002. And he developed the whole modern theory of cognitive bias. Why are we biased? Why do we come to wrong perceptions, wrong conclusions? And he applied these theories to the modern conduct of war in an article called “Why Hawks Win.” And he observed that most of the cognitive biases that we have discovered in the past forty years tend to favour a militaristic war-like approach. And if we examine the conduct of leaders as we lead up to war, we find a lot of impact of the most common and cognitive biases that humans are subject to. I think probably the classic example is the Iraq War and one of the most common biases that plagues human beings is our overconfidence bias. Humans are tremendously overconfident and a great example was Vice President Chaney predicting that American soldiers would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators and anyone who has read anything about the Iraq War knows that was never the case. So that is just one example of how our biases lead our leaders to go to war.


This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.

The Scholars’ Circle is our radio show that is broadcast weekly in ten US cities and available via podcast and/or transcript on our website. It brings together scholars’ from across various disciplines to discuss current issues in their chosen fields and various research that is taking place. For more click here.

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