ALDA Hello and welcome to Scientific American Frontiers. I'm Alan
all like to think that we understand our own minds. That we carefully
weigh the pros and cons when we make a decision, and that after
we've made it even if we have cause to regret it we know why
we decided the way we did. Oh, sure, we know some choices are more
emotional than rational, but even then we think we're conscious
of all the conflicting arguments that run through our minds as we
make a choice.
in this program we'll find out how utterly deluded we are as we
join in experiments revealing just how sneaky and underhanded our
brains can be.
discover why our brains convince us to buy a pricey branded version
instead of the cheaper alternative...
we're fooling ourselves if we think we harbor no hidden prejudices...
we find out why we sometimes make decisions that make no sense at
all coming up in tonight's episode, Hidden Motives.
QUEST FOR COOL
ALDA (NARRATION) What makes a product cool? What's going on in your
brain right now as you see objects both cool and un-cool floating
by? Can your brain tell the difference? How is it deciding? What's
the hidden motive behind the quest to be cool?
QUARTZ Today in our culture, cool is a social norm, it's a social
good. It's something that is desirable to have, we rate people in
terms of how cool they are, we all have at least some kind of implicit
understanding of what the rules are about being cool. For young
people, it's a terribly important thing: there's nothing worse for
a high-schooler than not feeling cool, to be banished by it. So
it's really a very important social good for us to have. It defines
ultimately our identity.
ALDA (NARRATION) So how cool am I?
This is the emergency buzzer...
ALDA (NARRATION) To find out, I've agreed to have my head examined
by lying in an MRI machine that will allow Steve Quartz to peer
into my brain while I'm looking at pictures. Steve wants to see
if my brain reacts differently to the images of things I think are
cool as opposed to those I find un-cool. One problem for me right
away is that I have no clue whether many of the 140 things parading
in front of my eyes are cool or not or even whether I think they're
cool or not or even, in some cases, what they are. It doesn't
matter, all I have to do consciously is look at them. It's what
my unconscious is doing what's going on in my brain that I'm not
even aware of that Steve and his collaborators are interested
in. Because while on the one hand what's cool right now in our culture
can be viewed as trivial and passing after all there's nothing
more un-cool than something that was cool last week on the other
hand, how we decide what's cool, Steve believes requires the most
highly evolved part of our brains the most uniquely human and
involves nothing less than our sense of self All that from looking
at stuff like shoes... It took about 30 minutes in the scanner, my
brain now reeling from consumer overload.
ASP So now we're done with the scan, we have a little survey for
ALDA (NARRATION) Anette Asp is Steve Quartz's extremely cool collaborator.
ASP All the images you saw in the experiment are represented here
on this paper. It goes from zero to five, and you're going to rate
each image from zero, meaning not cool, to five meaning very cool.
ALDA Very cool. OK, so how do I translate that to me? If I think,
do I like it, do I think it's pleasant, nice... How do I?
ASP How you experienced them. If you think it's cool.
ALDA I mean, different people think different things by cool. This
is not me saying what I think other people think are cool. This
is me saying how I respond to it.
ASP Yes, exactly.
ALDA (NARRATION) By the way, all these objects were chosen for their
coolness by a panel of design experts. But it's not what they think
that matters, right?
ALDA This looks un-cool to me, but I like it. So I'm saying that's
cool... sort of cool. Oh, very un-cool here, very not cool. I don't
know what this is, I don't like it. Ah, very cool, finally we got
ALDA (NARRATION) The iPod even I can recognize as cool. But most
of this stuff...
QUARTZ It turned you that you rated most of the objects as un-cool,
the majority of them as un-cool. So we took the ones that you rated
cool and the ones that you rated un-cool to look at the difference.
So, here's you.
QUARTZ This is you looking at the cool objects.
ALDA At the cool ones.
QUARTZ At the cool ones. Very little activation overall.
ALDA (NARRATION) It seems that the cool stuff left me cold, my brain
remaining stubbornly indifferent even to things like the iPod that
I thought were cool. But here's the surprise. To objects I later
labeled un-cool, my brain lit up most especially in an area that
has long fascinated Steve Quartz right at the very front of the
brain, where he believes our sense of self resides. About a third
of everyone run through the scanner had this strong negative reaction
to the un-cool, including to her astonishment Anette.
ASP I had the same response. And I said I just ignored all the images
that were un-cool, I'm just focusing on the cool images in the scanner.
I came out and looked at the results afterwards and I responded
exactly like you. Completely unanticipated. ALAN ALDA OK, now what
about people like us? What for example did you react to negatively
on that list?
ASP Well, there were some sunglasses, some cars, water bottles,
shoes I mean especially clothes for me, it's a big deal. And I
think the people who are high negative responders are very consciously
aware of what's cool, but their main focus is to stay away from
everything that is un-cool, and that's how our brains respond.
ALDA It doesn't seem like it results in a gray life. I mean, you
seem very cool. Tour hair is cool, you outfit is cool, right? Look
at your ring there, it's great.
ASP Thank you. Well, I think that just the fact that my brain responds
so intensely to the negative stimuli, the un-cool, makes me sweat
even harder to be cool.
ALDA (NARRATION) But while Anette and I have brains that unconsciously
recoil from the un-cool, people in the next biggest group tested
in the scanner have the opposite response. Their brains ignore the
un-cool, but go wild especially in that part at the front where
our sense of social status lies when confronted with cool. What's
more, another part of the brain involved in planning movement also
lights up, suggesting they are subconsciously reaching out to grab
QUARTZ Being one myself...
ASP Guess what he is...
ALDA Are you highly positive in response to cool?
QUARTZ I am, I am. I... it certainly gives me clues when I walk into
a store of what to be aware of.
ASP His brain is biased by everything that is positive, like the
cool stimuli. It's very attractive to his brain. And it might be
that people in that category are more impulsive , they're shop-aholics
or they're... it's important to them to be on top of trends and know
about a new product coming out on the market first. They tend to
jump on the new stuff faster than the people who are more worried
about being cool in terms of staying away from the un-cool products.
ALDA And Steve, is that how you see yourself. Was it a surprise
to you to scan yourself?
QUARTZ No, it actually confirmed my wife's suspicions.
ALDA Have you scanned your wife?
QUARTZ No, she's afraid to know what she is!
ALDA (NARRATION) Not surprisingly, this new ability to see inside
our heads as we contemplate what's cool enough to covet what attracts
us to $8 dollar bottles of water and $5000 watches is also attracting
the attention of marketers who'd like us to buy them. In fact a
whole new business called neuromarketing is already using brain
imaging to seek out the hidden motives behind our consumer desires.
ALDA (NARRATION) I've always thought of myself as a feminist. So
I'm pretty sure I know how I'll do in this test of my reaction to
women in the workplace...
ALDA I am ready to begin.
ALDA (NARRATION) ...women, in fact, like Mahzarin Banaji, who's a
professor here at Harvard University. The test is called the Implicit
Association Test, and it begins simply enough. I have to pair the
word in the center with one of the words above, by pressing the
e key with my left hand or the i key with my right. Mahzarin has
told me to do this a fast as I can, because it's the time I take
to make the associations that's critical to the test. Now the target
words have changed, but the task remains the same, to quickly decide
whether the new words belong to the left or the right. But things
are about to get trickier.
BANAJI It's the same thing, except that now any one of these four
will show up, and when it's career or male you press the left key,
when it's family or female you press the right key.
ALDA Career or male.
ALDA (NARRATION) So now the categories are described by two words,
making it harder to decide where the new words belong. But since
historically male and career have gone together...
ALDA This is like you're reinforcing the stereotype here.
BANAJI Yes exactly.
ALDA (NARRATION) The point of the test is to discover if, lurking
beneath my feminist convictions, I actually harbor a hidden bias
against women in the workplace based on all the associations between
man and career and women and family that bathed the culture I grew
ALDA Family or male, career or female. OK, now you're testing me.
BANAJI Now we're testing you.
ALDA (NARRATION) The Implicit Association Test is designed to ferret
out any bias by seeing if it takes me fractionally longer to figure
out where a word belongs when the pairing of the target words
in this case family and male together, and career and female is
slightly more difficult for my brain to accept.
ALDA Corporation... family, career... You are done.
BANAJI Slight. I could tell, this is very good. So let's see, you
are showing a slight automatic association between male and career
and only 12% of the population that takes this test shows this bias.
What you're seeing is that you are showing a much smaller bias that
what many other people show. I'm up here, I make a strong association
between male and career and between female and family even though
that's not what I consciously express.
ALDA Even though that's not what you live?
BANAJI That's not what I live, but in my world... I don't know, maybe
many years of working in feminist causes made you show this less.
ALDA (NARRATION) So all those years of working in feminist causes
didn't manage to totally eliminate my lingering association between
female and family, and male and career. What's astonishing, though,
is that Mahzarin is far worse and she's not only enjoying a very
successful career she designed the test! Another of its designers
is Brian Nosek, who personally developed the test he's taking now,
intended to reveal hidden racial prejudice.
ALDA These are the same faces you've seen many times.
NOSEK Many times, many times. In fact I helped create the faces,
ALDA (NARRATION) The heart of this test is to see whether it is
easier for Brian to match words or pictures to pairings of African
American with bad, and European American with good... than when the
pairings are reversed, European Americans with bad and African Americans
BANAJI I can predict.
NOSEK Yeah, what do you think?
BANAJI Moderate. Moderate to strong.
NOSEK I say moderate as well. Strong preference for white!
ALDA You're taking this for the umpteenth time and you still haven't
caught on to the fact that you're a little biased?
NOSEK I think part of it is the insistence that my conscious beliefs
still matter. It isn't that the fact that I keep showing these implicit
biases means that I'm a biased person so we should just accept that
and move on. It's that, no, I don't agree with those. I do have
them, and I will admit to having these implicit biases, but I'm
not going to let that rule what I consciously want to have.
ALDA (NARRATION) It really is remarkable that here I am in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, perhaps the liberal capital of the country, with
two academics who pride themselves on their enlightened attitudes,
only to discover that they have latent within them biases they would
fervently deny if their own test hadn't revealed them. But all may
not be lost.
NOSEK We have found in research and also in testing of myself, that
if I put myself in a situation where I think about positive black
exemplars, I think about Michael Jordan and Colin Powell and people
Martin Luther King people who have had a very positive impact
and who are also African American, I show much less bias immediately
after thinking about those exemplars that if I hadn't thought about
BANAJI Even the simple things, like the presence of an African American
experimenter reduces race bias. That the presence of a competent
woman makes women's attitude to math become more positive. These
kinds of studies sit in contradiction to ways in which people like
I thought about these. We thought they were learned over long periods
of time, that they were entrenched, they were rigid, inflexible,
and in fact that does not appear to be the case, and I think that
that's where the room for optimism is. So on the one hand I would
like people to take these data seriously when we can show the vast
numbers of people who show the bias I think we need to contend with
that. On the other hand, what this work is showing is that it might
not be hard to shape environments that can change these even automatic
kinds of attitudes.
ALDA (NARRATION) You can find out if you harbor unconscious biases
you would deny even to yourself by logging on to the Project Implicit
web site. There you'll find tests of attitudes toward such things
as age and religion as well as lighter fare like the Harry Potter
movies versus The Lord of the Rings. Give it a try. You may be in
for a shock.
CHOICES ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A harrowing true story used on MASH
has been borrowed by researchers looking for the hidden struggles
that go on when our brains are confronted with a moral dilemma.
A bus full of people has to hide from enemy soldiers...
Quiet, nobody make a sound until they've passed.
ALDA (NARRATION) But a crying baby endangers everyone's life. Hawkeye
urges the mother to keep the baby quiet and she ends up smothering
it. The question is: Is it OK to sacrifice one life in a situation
like his to save the lives of everyone else? The question has been
asked of subjects in a study at Princeton University along with
another version of the same dilemma, involving a train, or in some
accounts, a trolley. You're standing next to a railroad switch as
a train approaches. If you do nothing, the train will surely kill
five foolish but innocent people standing on the track. You could
save them by hitting the switch, diverting the train. The problem
is that there's another foolish innocent standing on the second
GREENE So the moral question is, is it OK to hit the switch so you
only run over one person instead of five? What do you think? Off
the top of your head? ALAN ALDA Off the top of my head it seems
it would be regrettable to kill anybody, but if you could save the
five people, then you would throw the switch.
GREENE Well, that's what pretty much everybody we ask says. Okay,
now here's a slightly different case. Trolley headed towards five
people, this time, there's no other track. You're on a footbridge
standing over the track. And you're standing next to this big person.
And this time, the only way you can save those five people is to
push the big guy off of bridge. He'll land on the tracks. He'll
get squashed by the train. He'll die, but the five people will live.
ALDA Okay, so, will I push him off the bridge?
ALDA Well, it's so hypothetical. I mean, I don't even understand...First
of all, I don't understand how he could ... I'd have to be really
convinced that he could stop the train. But I'd be, as I'm sure
most people would be, less inclined to push the guy. But, um...I don't
know....It depends. It kind of depends, I mean, do I have anything
against this guy?
ALDA Would it matter to me if I lost him?
COHEN Yeah. Is that what you really want to do?
GREENE The fact that you're looking for all these sort of angles
and ways out and things to question is very telling. Because most
people are made rather uncomfortable by that one.
ALDA Right. I'm taking a very active role--.
GREENE Structurally, these are very similar cases. I mean, it's
death by trolley to one person in order to save five people. Perhaps
you can try and find a reason why it's OK. And this is what philosophers
have been busy doing...Well we put the philosophical question about
what is right and wrong aside for a second, and we asked, what's
going on in the brain?
ALDA (NARRATION) What they found when people struggled with these
problems in a scanner is that regions of the brain thought to be
involved in emotion lit up when people thought about pushing the
guy off the bridge. And just as I did, it took them longer to make
that decision than the less personal one of throwing the switch.
How emotion and rationality compete in decision-making is also the
subject of an experiment that I'm about to be suckered into along,
apparently, with some dozen Princeton students.
SANFEY Our subject today is going to Alan Alda, whom I'm sure you
all recognize, and slightly different from out run of the mill Princeton
undergraduate. And so, the way it'll work is that each of you, in
turn, will play one round of the game. You'll be brought into a
room and sat in front of a computer terminal. You'll play the game
with Alan who's gonna be downstairs in the scanner.
ALDA (NARRATION) I'll be having my brain scanned while each of the
other players offers to split ten dollars with me. I can either
accept or reject the offer but if I turn it down, we both get
ALDA Well, if they give me a ridiculous offer, then I lose money
because I don't accept their ridiculous offer?
RILLING That's correct. If you reject the offer, neither of you
get anything. ALAN ALDA This game is like life.
ALDA (NARRATION) So it's into the MRI machine I go again. I'm given
a button box to respond to the offers, which I can see projected
on to a mirror above my face.
RILLING Alan, are you able to read the words "Welcome to the Experiment"
written on the screen there?
ALDA (NARRATION) I hadn't expected a computer as a partner but
it's offer seems what a reasonable machine would make so OK, I'll
take it. Kelly seemed like a nice person... and she is, fine. Kathleen,
let's see... What? That's ridiculous. No way. I'm beginning to wonder
if this is a set-up and the people aren't actually playing, just
lending their faces. Ah, another selfish oaf... Take that. Clare...
surely...Oh, dud, dum, dum...yes, no... No. To heck with it. I'm now pretty
sure I'm being manipulated by the experimenters, not those nice
polite Princeton students...Oh, here's the computer again maybe
I can teach this thing a lesson in manners too. Zap. I was just
one of some 20 people scanned in the study, which found that in
most of us, blatantly unfair offers activated regions of our brains
associated with feelings of anger and disgust. What's more, these
responses were stronger when we thought the offer was coming from
a person rather than from the computer
ALDA Was there somebody live on the other end?
SANFEY Well, um, no. Not exactly, no.
ALDA At one point they were alive. When you took their picture.
ALDA I think it occurred to me somewhere in the middle of the first
run, I think.
SANFEY Did that affect how you played the game?
ALDA No, I played it as if they were real people.
COHEN You actually rejected a couple of offers from the computer
where it made avowedly unfair offers but nevertheless there's presumably
there's no personal...
ALDA Well, the chances were better for me if I assumed I could move
the computer around than if I just had an emotional reaction to
COHEN Or if it was just a dry response. Which is, "Hey, it's just
a computer, what do I care? I'll take the two bucks and run. There's
no consequences down the road for what I get.
ALDA And it's just a couple of bucks, I could--.
COHEN We discussed that too. And at first we thought, maybe this
is an inconsequential part of your salary, but then we realized,
this is PBS...maybe this is more than your getting.
ALDA No. I did very well today.
COHEN We haven't paid you yet. This is part of the experiment.
SANFEY You want this right now?
ALDA You think I'll be giving this back to Princeton. Forget it.
What did I make?
SANFEY Forty eight dollars.
ALDA Forty eight dollars.
COHEN Not bad, huh?
ALDA Now, of course, you know, this has nothing to do with the science,
but how did I do compared to other people?
COHEN I'll let these guys answer, because they're the ones...
ALDA Is that about average?
SANFEY That's actually low. Because most people would be...would reject
ALDA They would. Because... What do they report when they talk to
you? Why would reject?
SANFEY Typically around the 7 and 3 mark, people have typically
told us, "It's a little bit unfair but it's not too bad." So they
tend to accept that. They also tend to accept everything a computer
offers them. They don't really draw distinction between fairness
and unfairness of a computer. Most of them will reject a 9 and 1
offer, and about half will reject the 8 and 2, and most will accept
the 7 and 3.
ALDA (NARRATION) When the offers are 7 and 3, the rational regions
of the brain become more active than the emotional centers, suggesting
that reason is overcoming outrage. Since at least the days of Sigmund
Freud, we've been aware that there are hidden motives behind much
of what we decide and what we do. The tools of science are now revealing
the clamor within our brains as these hidden motives compete and
this may one day help us better understand that clamor so that our
decisions aren't quite so...well, dumb.
ALDA It would be interesting to know what you recorded when I was
offered the 7 and 3. Because I thought, well, gee, that's being
awfully particular. Why don't you take the three? But I thought,