A disturbing but enlightening look at the power of the unconscious over human action and decision-making.
Why did virtually everyone on the 88th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center survive on 9/11, while almost all of those on the 89th floor perished? Washington Post behavior columnist Vedantam (The Ghosts of Kashmir, 2006) uses that question to demonstrate how even the strongest willed can be subject to their unconscious minds. Sometimes this agency is for the good; often, however, our unconscious biases lead us into error. Shunning Freudian interpretation for more recent, evidence-based science, Vedantam cites studies in the United States, Canada and Europe that demonstrate how people are easily misled into acting on biases they would be shocked to learn they had. An honor box in a British office’s coffee room fills faster when a printed request for contributions is accompanied by a pair of watchful eyes. More harmful, people tend to rate the intelligence or competence of a total stranger downward when they are merely proximate to—not necessarily interacting with—an overweight person. Transsexuals who become men improve their lot while those who become women suffer economically and socially, all other aspects of their personalities remaining equal. School children of all races persist in applying positive attributes to white strangers and negative ones to people of color. These studies, Vedantam says, point out the tendency of humans to be ruled by the oceanic portion of our mind that keep us functioning in a complex world, while the conscious mind attends to only what it needs to—shockingly little in comparison.
A tour into dark realms of the psyche by a personable guide.