Finding your inner bigot.

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Oct. 14 2010 2:01 PM

Rick Sanchez's Prejudices—and Mine

Finding your inner bigot.

(Continued from Page 1)

In my book, I describe the "life-cycle of bias" in young children, adults, and the elderly. Children say and do nasty things. So do many elderly people. We usually tell ourselves that children don't know better and that the elderly grew up in an era when prejudice was acceptable. The reality, however, is that we have two brains. At the start of life and toward the end of life, the conscious brain isn't strong enough to restrain the hidden brain. That's why the unconscious biases within us all tend to show up more clearly among those groups. They also show up among adults whose conscious brains are temporarily deprived or distracted—a politician in the midst of a hectic campaign, an entertainer dealing with a heckler, an exhausted newsman speaking off the cuff.

Guarding against unconscious attitudes can be enormously taxing. It requires, besides a properly functioning brain, lots of energy. If you give a group of elderly people lemonade with sugar and give another group lemonade laced with Splenda, you will see more inappropriate stuff expressed by the Splenda group because the group that was fed sugar has more fuel to operate their conscious brains.

The people who make the news are the ones who call women "bitches," blacks "niggers," or gays "faggots." Conscious prejudice still exists. But it is a vanishingly small part of the problem. The real challenge is unconscious bias. No one builds museums and memorials to its victims, however, because the perpetrators don't wear swastikas or string people up from trees—they are ordinary, well-meaning people like you and me.

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Shankar Vedantam covers the social sciences for NPR. Follow him @HiddenBrain and on Facebook.

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