‘Subliminal:’ Do Stereotypes Control Our Actions?

We do our best here at Books for Better Living to make informed decisions, to act without bias, and to perceive the world around us clearly. But for all that we do consciously, there’s so much that our brain is doing unconsciously. That’s the subject of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, the new book by Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk.

In his (inner) eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world, Mlodinow notes a particular psychological phenomenon: stereotype bias, or our subliminal tendency to absorb other people’s beliefs about a group we identify with and to perform accordingly. Mlodinow cites research showing how students with average performances in school showed significant increases in their actual IQ after being called out as brilliant by their teachers. However, the labels need not be so obvious: In a Harvard study, female Asian students who were reminded of their Asian heritage—and, therefore, the stereotype of a “model minority”—before a math test received higher marks than the students whose ethnic identity was not cued. In a demoralizing twist, the same students who were reminded of their femininity received lower-than-average scores.

Let these examples be a reminder of the stereotypes we subscribe to. Simply acknowledging that these stereotypes exist can subliminally alter our performance. It’s a tall order to ask us to change the hidden processes of our brain, but we can work on changing the stereotypes that surround us. Imagine if reminding women of their femininity brought to mind their intelligence and acuity. There’s absolutely no reason why this shouldn’t be the case, and Harvard’s study makes a strident case for changing these subliminal perceptions without delay.

This is only one example of the eye-opening insight the scientific community is gaining from recent research into the brain’s unconscious. For more startling examples of how our unconscious is holding the reins, be sure to check out Subliminal.


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Books by Leonard Mlodinow
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