Neurobiology of Behavior
18 April 2007
Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is one of the most illuminating works I have ever read. He proposes that our “thin-slicing” – the ability to identify and process only the most essential aspects of a situation in milliseconds, without any conscious knowledge of doing so – is responsible for much of our behavior. Gladwell’s theory suggests that our unconscious is more powerful than we realize, and that split decisions or gut feelings can be just as valid (or even more so) as the conclusions at which we arrive through a long process of painstaking attention to detail and balancing of pro’s and con’s.
One of the experiments that Gladwell used as an example in the book was particularly interesting. People were shown a list consisting of five word sets. Four of the five words in a set made a coherent sentence, and subjects were asked to form that sentence. For example, the set “shoes, give, replace, old, the” became “replace the old shoes.” Apparently, all of the sets had a word that had to do with the elderly, like ‘old’ or ‘wrinkles’, and what was most important was that people walked more slowly than before when they left – they had been primed. Their “thin-slicing” had caught on to those words, although the subjects (and the readers who tried this) had not consciously been aware that there were ‘old’ words in the sets. Several experiments like this revealed that people are affected by the words they hear or see, so much so that their behavior towards other people may change drastically depending on whether they have seen negative or positive words.
Gladwell goes on to point out that “thin-slicing” is very helpful in that it allows us to focus on the task at hand while it takes in and processes all the extra information, and in that it can sometimes allow us to see the most essential components of a situation, object, or person. However, he also shows that this kind of intuition can be wrong – there are many times when snap judgments are wrong, when people are not at all what they seem. He showed that all of us are prejudiced, not only racially, but also sexually, and in terms of height and beauty as well.
There are other experiments that Gladwell delineates in the book that show the effects of priming, the dangers of thin-slicing, and, fascinatingly, facial expressions. Gladwell describes studies and experiments that show that one’s facial expression can actually affect the emotion one is experiencing. He talks about how people have facial expressions that they can control (i.e., looking stern when castigating someone), and how people also have facial expressions that they cannot control that show what that person is thinking or feeling. Gladwell talks of how everyone can “thin-slice” other people to some extent, reading the other person’s face both intentionally and unintentionally.
Gladwell ends his book by explaining that he had originally written it to “take a journey.” However, he says that the journey made him realize that the findings about “thin-slicing” that he describes in the book reveal that some of the ways we conduct our legal system need to be changed. Earlier in the book he had shown that people associate career words and positive words more readily with white people than with black men. That society has affected our unconscious deeply enough for that – that suggests that the present court system, with a jury of twelve looking at one person defending him- or herself, is inherently flawed. Looking at people may change the jury’s decision, not because they are consciously racist or sexist or classist, but because everyone’s unconscious has been affected by society’s messages. Gladwell suggests that for the court system to be more unbiased, the accused should not be in the room, or at the very least should be behind a screen so that no one can tell his or her race. He concludes “once we know about how the mind works – and about the strengths and weaknesses of human judgment – it is our responsibility to act.” The unconscious bias most people in our society have in favor of whites needs to be changed in such ways so that perhaps our society as a whole becomes a more equal one.
This book ties in nicely with the class this semester. The class was more of a theoretical, and at times even philosophical, approach to neurobiology and the workings of the brain. The unconscious was discussed to some extent, and the book complements that discussion and proves that the importance of the unconscious needs to be addressed more seriously in our society and culture, because it clearly has a strong impact on our opinions and “-isms.” Class discussions often revolved around our perception of reality versus the “real” reality. Gladwell’s theory addresses this conversation indirectly, by suggesting that our perception of reality is much more detailed than we know. We are experiencing a great deal that we don’t know we are experiencing – but the information we are receiving has an important effect on us nonetheless.