Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is an exploration of rapid cognition, of the thinking that happens in the blink of an eye, and is an attempt to “understand this magical and mysterious thing called judgment” (Gladwell 260). He refrains from using “intuition” to describe this kind of thinking, as he believes we use that word to describe irrational thought. Gladwell argues that those first two seconds of rapid cognition are completely rational and just involve thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than deliberate, conscious thought and decision-making. He uses a large variety of non-fiction examples and stories to demonstrate that there are a lot of situations in which “haste does not make waste” and when snap judgments can offer a better way to make sense of the world. He also ventures to explain when snap judgments go awry and how to help people distinguish between good and bad rapid cognition. Gladwell emphasizes two important lessons in his book- once we know how the mind works it is our duty to act; and it is not enough to simply know about rapid cognition, we have to understand how to control it. I found it interesting that the overarching theme of the lessons is what to do with this ability, this instinct: as Gladwell states, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding” (265).
Gladwell opens with an anecdote that I think perfectly describes how we, as a culture, understand instincts. He describes the J. Paul Getty Museum’s purchase of a marble statue, a kouros, from the sixth century B.C. The Getty did an investigation, lasting over a year, of all sorts of tests to ensure its authenticity. The tests showed it was indeed “old” and in 1986 it went on display. However, there was a problem: something did not look right. Beginning with an Italian art historian, a series of experts explained that something was not right with the statue. It was “fresh” or “something was amiss” or even “it looked like it had been dipped in they very best café latte from Starbucks” (Gladwell 6). The general consensus was that it was not as authentic and ancient as the seller had made it seem to be. But the strange thing was, despite this intense gut feeling no one could say what was wrong with the statue.
This “intense gut feeling” that each art historian had reminded me about our class discussion about emotions. When we see a picture of a crying baby, most of us react by saying “awww.” Interestingly, this feeling, which comes from a reaction of the unconscious mind, precedes our rationalization and recognition of what we are seeing. In other words, we say “awww” before we are even conscious of seeing the crying baby. The experts had this intense feeling that something was horribly wrong with the statue long before they could explain what was wrong. It turns out that the kouros statue actually came from a forger’s workshop, was cut in the 1980s was aged using potato mold. This exemplifies Gladwell’s theory that extended deliberation does not always lead to a better conclusion: “When [the experts] and all the others looked at the kouros and felt an ‘intuitive repulsion,’ they were absolutely right. In the first two seconds of looking- in a single glance- they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months” (Gladwell 8).
Gladwell says the part of our brain that jumps to conclusions is deemed the adaptive unconscious and he likens this to a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes much of the data that we need to function as humans. However, I disagree with a part of this analysis, because to say that our brain is comparable to a computer is somewhat disconcerting. If that were the case, wouldn’t we have less control over our bodies? In class we talked about how the brain can produce its own signals with a certain amount of randomness and thus is highly unpredictable, compared to computers, which are designed specifically to be predictable. I think the basic idea of the brain working like a computer is good because it makes sense: the brain takes in signals, does things with the signals, and generates more signals. But the brain is really a huge network of somewhat unreliable computers. I think it is this unreliability and unpredictability that accounts for the conclusions that we draw in those first two seconds. We can’t control them because they just happen and they aren’t necessarily predictable because they happen in the moment and are altered by culture, experience, and learning.
An example that supports this idea comes from Gladwell’s chapter about mind reading. The story takes place on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, a poor and working-class neighborhood with a lot of drug trading in the 1990s. Amadou Diallo, who emigrated from Guinea, was young and working as a peddler in Manhattan. One evening he was just standing on the steps of his building, minding his own business. Four policemen turned onto Wheeler Avenue in an unmarked vehicle. One spotted Diallo and started discussing the situation with his partners. He thought maybe he was the lookout for a robber or he fit the description of a local serial rapist. They approached building and noticed that Diallo didn’t move. This was odd. They got out of the vehicle and tried to talk to him; but Diallo didn’t answer, maybe due to his imperfect English or slight stutter. Diallo started to run and the policemen chased him. Diallo started to reach for something in his pocket. The officer thought it was a gun and opened fire. After a total of 41 shots, Diallo was dead, a wallet in his hand.
What happened in those first few seconds of decision-making is really quite interesting. It is a great example of an utter failure of what is known as classic thin-slicing- inferring the motivations and intentions of others by picking up on the subtle cues in order to read someone’s mind (Gladwell 195), something we do effortlessly and automatically all the time. The officers were so consumed with their body’s reaction to the life-threatening situation and so they failed to read Diallo’s mind: “arousal leaves you mind-blind” (Gladwell 229). While this is a tragic event, it holds great power in advancing how officers are trained and how people in general react in high stress situations. James Fyfe, head of training for the NYPD, trains his officers to act with time on their side so they can slow the situation down. He studied the degree to which behavior and proper training techniques correlated and found that face-to-face officers did the “right” thing over 90% of the time. But their approach to the scene was terrible and therein is the problem. Fyfe states, “If you have to rely on your reflexes, someone is going to get hurt- and get hurt unnecessarily. If you take advantage of intelligence and cover, you will almost never have to make an instinctive decision” (Gladwell 237). Gladwell argues, and I agree with him, that people often think of incidents such as these as all-or-nothing events, that once it starts there is nothing that can stop it. However, this is not the case and once we can recognize this we will be much better off. Gladwell claims that our unconscious thought processes are not so critically different than our conscious processes. In both “minds” we can develop our rapid decision-making with training and experience (Gladwell 237). If we have this ability to condition our minds to function at high levels under stress, to read minds effectively, to make the “right” instantaneous judgments, how can we make it happen? What kinds of everyday things can we do to improve and correct our abilities so that we make fewer mistakes? Obviously there are implications for police response and this raises the question of what other social implications might this have. This would be an interesting area for further investigation.
The penultimate section of his book retells trombonist Abbie Conant’s journey to join the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. She auditioned behind a screen, a rare occasion for Europe at the time. She missed one note and went backstage assuming she was going home. However, she was wrong and the selection committee decided that she was what they were looking for. She returned to the stage, stepped from behind the screen, and completely shocked the committee; they were expecting a man. What ensued next was nothing less than discrimination. She passed the next two rounds of auditions with flying colors, but her audition was tainted by long-held prejudices. She joined the orchestra, but a year later was demoted to second chair trombone and then put on a yearlong probation to prove herself again, without reason. It was to no avail. She was told that they needed a man for trombone (Gladwell 247). She took the case to court, won, and went again to get fair pay. She won that case as well.
Auditions are classic thin-slicing moments: classically trained musicians say they can determine if a player is good or not within the first few bars or the first note. For years the classical music world was male-dominated; however, over the past few years, things have been changing and blind auditions are becoming more common because some people sound better than they look and vice versa. “There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear. The audition begins the first second the person is in view” (Gladwell 251). Herein lies one of the most powerful lessons in Blink. Too often we are careless with our powers of rapid cognition; we don’t know where those first impressions come from or what they mean, and we don’t always appreciate their delicateness. We must acknowledge what can change or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious in order to take our powers of rapid cognition seriously. If we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition (Gladwell 252). When we give ourselves the opportunity to take charge of those first two seconds, we can see people for who they really are. This is the most exciting aspect of Gladwell’s book, the lesson about what to do once we have discovered this ability.
The closing section of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, entitled When to Blink- And When to Think, is in my opinion one of the most useful and valuable for it provides a real-life application for these studies. He claims that straightforward choices should be made with deliberate analysis using our conscious mind. But when we have to juggle many variables and take into consideration personal choice, our unconscious thought processes are superior. This seemed contradictory to my beliefs because I had always thought that my instincts were always better on immediate questions, like do I want that candy bar. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer because the puzzle is too complicated. All we can do is try to find the best balance of conscious and unconscious thought processes on a case-by-case basis. Gladwell says, “Every moment- every blink- is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, for correction” (241). This makes me wonder if snap judgments are similar to motor symphonies and if the process of improving our rapid cognition can be likened to the idea of “loopy science” we discussed in class. We defined motor symphonies as action input/output patterns, or lots of parts working and acting together in an organized manner. It is possible then that a series of “blink” moments combines to form a conclusion about a situation or person? Since these moments can influence the next snap judgment, do they fit into the idea of “loopy science,” in that one snap judgment leads to the next one, creating an unending process of reforming our instincts so that they are less biased? In closing, I found Gladwell’s book to be an incredibly intriguing adventure into the unconscious mind. I liked that his story extended beyond neuroscience and into the social environment. I wonder what will is next to be discovered in the world of the unconscious and neurobiology.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. Print.