Understanding the Mind

If we understand our minds as we understand the physical world, everything will change.

This introductory essay was written for Edge.org by Mahzarin Banaji, Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

"Think about it: what we know about the human mind comes from data gathered for little over a 100 years. In actuality, only since the mid 20th century do we have anything approximating the sort of activity we would call a science of the mind. For a half century's work we've done pretty well, but the bald fact is we have almost no understanding of how the thing that affects all aspects of our lives does its work. The state of our decision making—whether it is about global warming or the human genome, about big bailouts on Wall Street or microfinancing in Asia, about single payer healthcare or not—is what it is because the machine that does all the heavy lifting is something we barely understand. Would we trust the furnace in our house if we understood it as little?

"From the little we do know, we can say that good people (we, us) are capable of incredible harm to others and even themselves. That daily moral decisions we make are not based on the principles of justice that we think they are, but are often a result of the familiarity and similarity of the other to oneself. These two simple biases [and the others that follow] happen because the mind and its workings remain invisible to us and until we unmask it meanderings, the disparity between what we do and what we think we do will remain murky."