blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Brom Snyder

Malcom Gladwell, the author of blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, believes in the power of the "adaptive unconscious" to revolutionize the information age. blink is a fascinating and example-laden examination of the brain's ability to process information in the blink of an eye and reach correct conclusions. He defines the adaptive unconscious as " a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings." (Gladwell,11) In laymen's terms Gladwell advocates going with one's gut instinct. Gladwell gives countless examples of the adaptive unconscious' ability to distinguish patterns and thereby change a person's behavior before the I-function is conscious of the pattern. Written in an accessible style with minimum number of technical terms Gladwell's both stimulate and intrigue.

Gladwell's belief in the adaptive unconscious' ability to quickly and accurately assess a situation using very small pieces of information conflicts with the major tenet of the information age, the more information at one's disposal the better the decision-making process will be. In an age where the average person is inundated with 24 hour news coverage and can google any topic resulting in thousands of web pages related to the topic, Gladwell believes more in the adaptive unconscious' processing of information. One of Gladwell's more persuasive examples involves an anecdote about an U.S. army simulation conducted in the summer of 2000. The simulation pitted the blue team, an army based on the United States' with a number of computer matrixes and models tracking and analyzing military, economic, and political factors associated with the conflict, while providing military commanders direct contact with units on the ground; against a red team, modeled after a middle eastern country with considerably less resources and technology than the blue team. The amount of information and control held by the leaders of the blue team excited U.S. army officials. They predicted that with all of the information and technology at their disposal they would burn away the "fog of war." The exact opposite happened, the staggering amount of information at the disposal of the blue team actually slowed the decision making process down, commanders kept demanding more information, ignoring their instincts in the belief that more information would lead to a more successful campaign. On the other hand the red team let its commanders on the ground make a much higher percentage of the decisions, and when making a decision examined only a few key factors rather than trying to figure the out the effects of the decision on a large number of factors. The members of the red team utilized considerably less information and waged a successful campaign. Gladwell argues that the amount of information provided to the blue team actually hindered the judgment of its commanders and the red team "allow[ed] people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly...enable[ing] rapid cognition."(Gladwell,119) Examples like this one, where less information actually is more helpful, fill blink, providing a persuasive body of evidence for Gladwell's claims.

It is important to note that Gladwell acknowledges problems with the rapid cognition associated with the adaptive unconscious. In the chapter "The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men" Gladwell expounds on the problems associated with snap judgments. In this chapter Gladwell explains cultural factors, like racism, often effect snap judgments. He named the error "The Warren Harding Error" in honor of the Warren G. Harding, one of the most inept presidents of all time, who won elections because he looked and sounded presidential even though he did not distinguish himself in any of the political position he occupied before being elected to the presidency. Harding succeeded because people's first impression of him classified him as distinguished and stately. Gladwell's willingness to acknowledge the problems associated with the adaptive unconscious give the work, a well rounded feel. Gladwell clearly understands the problems associated with rapid cognition but ultimately believes that the adaptive conscious, more often than not, reveals the true nature of a situation or another person.

The biggest problem with the book rests in its omission of a deeper description of how the adaptive unconscious and rapid cognition work. While clearly the adaptive unconscious exists outside the I-function Gladwell does not describe the interaction between these two parts of the brain. Beyond the lack of description of the actual processes involved in rapid cognition Gladwell does not address whether rapid cognition exists in other organisms. It seems probable that most organisms work solely using adaptive unconscious, because to do otherwise implies an I-function consciously choosing a course of action or train of thought.

While Gladwell's examination of the adaptive unconscious fascinates, his refusal to examine how factors like culture effect it leave reader with many questions. He acknowledges that outside factors influence its processing, but does not explain how. This problem like many of the problems discussed in class prompt more questions than they answer. Ultimately, the reader walks away from blink wondering what controls the adaptive unconscious?

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