Emergence and Blink

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Emergence 2006

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Emergence and Blink

Sarah Sniezek

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is about one's "adaptive unconscious", which is responsible for making snap decisions through thin-slicing. Blink's three tasks are: 1) to convince the reader that snap decisions (unconsciously) are every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately (consciously), 2) to teach the reader when to trust our instincts and when not to, and 3) to convince the reader that snap decisions and first impressions can be controlled through practice. (14-15)

Gladwell discusses and gives many examples of "thin-slicing", "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations or behavior based on very narrow slices of experience" (23). By narrow slices, he means minute details. For example, Gladwell describes a study done by John Gottman. Gottman developed a system where he has the ability to predict with 95% accuracy, after observing an hour of married couples talking, whether they will be divorced in 15 years. Gottman is able to train himself as well as others to thin slice certain characteristics, such as contempt, to make a profound prediction. Gladwell also gives examples of how in WWII the British hired women interceptors. These women were to figure out the German broadcasts that were in code, and soon enough they were able to recognize the different operators through their distinct ways of doing the code. Another example of thin-slicing is a study Gosling did. This study concluded that strangers do much better at assessing a person on the Big Five than friends of that person do. These people, John Gottman, the women interceptors, and the strangers were able to attack "...the question sideways, using indirect evidence...and their decision-making process was simplified: they weren't distracted at all the kind of by confusing, irrelevant information that comes from a face-to-face encounter. They thin-sliced" (39). Snap decisions are made very fast from the thinnest slices of experiences. The problem with thin-slicing is that many people are unaware how they used it to make their snap judgment. This is due to the fact that thin-slicing is an unconscious thought process; they occur "behind a locked door".

Not being able to trace back how we made a snap decision is very difficult for us to understand and can confuse us even more. Gladwell uses an example of Vic Braden, a top tennis coach's experiences in sports, to show how difficult it is to get into our unconscious. Braden, while watching any tennis match, is able to call a double fault with significant accuracy, before the ball is even hit. He was in complete shock of how he could do this. Braden could never get through his locked door to figure out why he could figure out when a tennis player would double fault. "The evidence he used to draw his conclusions seemed to be buried somewhere in his unconscious, and he could not dredge it up" (50). Braden is not the only one who feels this way. Since it is difficult to backtrack to how one came to a snap decision, many people have their own theories about how or why they do what they do. Andre Agassi had this problem when describing how he performed athletically. Agassi, like many pro tennis players, would say that he was so good at hitting the ball because he would roll his wrist back. In fact, when Braden did extensive studies, he found that Agassi, and most other professional tennis players, almost never moved their wrists until after the ball is hit. It was surprising to Braden that so many professionals could be confused about why they performed better than others. In fact, we all have these storytelling problems. "We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for" (69).

It seems that we all seem to have issues with explaining why it is we do things or come to certain snap judgments. Gladwell says that "...allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly...enables rapid cognition" (119) and having them explain themselves causes verbal overshadowing. This can be seen through an example given by Gladwell when one is asked to picture faces versus describe faces. Gladwell states that the left hemisphere of ones brain is what thinks in words and the right hemisphere is what thinks in pictures. If one was to describe the face of the last waitress they had while eating versus just picturing the waitress in their mind, then it would push one's thinking from the right to left hemisphere. Then if you were asked to identify your waitress in a line up, one would refer back to the description given in words and not the picture that was in their mind. This causes a problem because recognizing faces is meant to be a snap decision and not a long drawn out decision. It seems when one is asked to pick out the waitress in a lineup, after they described her, they are unable to do so versus just picking her out of the lineup without describing her. "In short, when you write down your thoughts, your chances of having the flash of insight you need in order to come up with a solution are significantly impaired" (121).

Another significant issue with thin-slicing and snap decisions is due to priming. Priming is when one tries to activate certain associations before having to do a task. Gladwell discusses how there have been many different cognitive studies on priming and its effects on people. Studies have shown that people are prone to priming. An example of this is the Warren Harding error. Warren Harding was a president of the United States, and won the presidential election based on his looks. Harding's looks, tall, dark and handsome, seem to be primed within our unconscious through our society. Studies have shown most CEO's of the top fortune 500 companies are just above six feet, meaning that in our society we have been primed to go for the person who "looks" most qualified for the position. Many other studies, such as John Barg's experiment of powerful associations, have shown the same priming affect. Barg primed people with certain words associated with old people, and it caused the participants to change their behaviors towards older people. One major every day example of priming is marketing. Marketers are well aware of priming based studies and use the findings to their advantage. They understand that people have certain unconscious opinions on things so they make sure they use it to their advantage. This is the dark side of thin-slicing; even if people consciously feel that they are not being affected by racism, marketing, etc, they are unconsciously being affected and there are tests to prove it.

Lastly, Gladwell gives examples of people who are good at thin-slicing to help one improve on harnessing their thin-slicing. Gladwell's only advice on improving snap decisions is to either pay attention only to important information and block out the rest or do not even allow yourself to know unnecessary information. He also discusses how practice makes perfect and how experts seem to have an upper hand on snap decisions. He says that , "This is the gift of training and expertise-the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience...Every moment-every blink- is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity from intervention, for reform, and for correction" (241).

Since I came to Bryn Mawr and took my first College Seminar class with Professor Grobstein, I have begun to think about this sort of thinking. Why are we able to do things, make decisions, etc without really thinking? Gladwell does an excellent job in describe how we come up with these snap decisions by using the process of thin-slicing. I wonder though if this thin-slicing is really happening in our unconscious, or some other, new part of our brains? Could it be that there is just this inherentness within us that makes these decisions with whatever information it has, or does it really thin-slice through our experiences? Is thin slicing really an unconscious experience, or is it an example of our brain analyzing a familiar experience so fast that our logical reasoning can not keep up? And when thin-slicing happens, does it only take thin slices of our experiences and put it all together, or does it know what material to thin-slice from experience? Does everything we have ever learned affect our snap decisions, or just things relating to the specific question?

Gladwell's Blink, has many good point on how the "adaptive unconscious" functions and how it is important to human beings for survival, but it also had many flaws. Why does this thin-slicing cause us human beings so many problems? It can be affected by numerous things, but Gladwell states that we can control it if we practice. Is it truly possible to control our thin-slicing to make better snap decisions? I believe that this is partly true. Gladwell's description of the "adaptive conscious" has really helped me to put my prior thoughts of these quick decision makings into a category. I truly believe that there is this sort of "thin-slicing" going on, but is it really in the unconscious, or some other part of the brain? I would like to think that it is the unconscious, but it just seems too simple to be only this adaptive unconscious that makes up this part of our decision making. Maybe it could be a "pseudo-unconscious", partly unconscious and partly conscious. I guess really what needs to be defined a bit more clearly is the difference between the unconscious and conscious. Also, is it even possible to have something in the middle, and is this adaptive unconscious that part?

There are three main issues that I have with Gladwell's concepts. Firstly, Gladwell does not account for people who are not experts who make good snap decisions. How is it that there are people, many of us, who are capable of making good snap decisions without having any expertise on the subject? Is it because of chance? It can't be chance. Is it because snap decision making is truly not unique to experts and is unique to people who have learned to hone into this skill? I am not quiet sure why this is the case, but I would think that it is because the person is able to thin-slice the most relevant information and make the best decision. However, it seems that the more one has experience with a subject the more accurate the thin slicing.

Secondly, Gladwell discusses how it is important to pay attention only to important information and block out the rest or do not even allow yourself to know unnecessary information. I am not quite sure how that is done? How could one know what is necessary information and what is unnecessary information to make the snap decision? Is it possible that it is inherent in some, and not in others? I think this relates to the first issue I have, in that maybe the people who are able to make snap decisions well, that are not experts, have some sort of ability to just inherently know what information is necessary and what is not. I highly doubt that, but I guess it is possible. Also, if snap-decisions are made in the "blink" of an eye, how can one have the time to consciously filter information? I feel that the same function that makes the snap decision has to do the filtering. This is where I think experience relates to snap decision accuracy.

Lastly, is this ability to thin-slice and make snap decisions higher than logical reasoning or lower than human reasoning? In other words is this type of thinking more basic than consiouse logical resoning, or more complex. Do other species use this same type of thinking? I would like to think that this type of thinking is on a higher level than what we understand, but how is it possible for other species to also posses these qualities? I think that other species do function on this level and have this "adaptive unconscious". Maybe snap decisions are how species without the cerebral cortex make decisions. I am not sure about this, but I do think it matters what one's definition of "more elaborate" means. I feel that since other species have more information to filter through than we do and that is what makes it more elaborate.

When reading this book I found myself trying to piece thorough all the information and connect it with emergence. What I have taken from it is that the process of thin-slicing is seemingly so simple, but ends up making this huge snap decision that we are unable to understand. Therefore, snap decision making is a type of emergence. We have many of these snap decisions a day, but are unsure of how we got there. I feel that Gladwell did a decent job on trying to explain how we got to our snap decisions through thin-slicing our experiences, but he did not give a clear path back to figuring out how we go to these snap decisions. It is so general, and I think it is important that Gladwell has made a move towards trying to figure out how we go to these snap decisions. What I want to understand more of, is what exactly of this thin-slicing are we taking in to make these snap decisions? Is it possible that we are able to never thin-slice and still get the same results? Gladwell also suggests that we are able to improve on thin-slicing by trying to be more aware of its errors. If this is the case, then is it possible that all types of emergence can be improved and figured out after using our memory to think about the different types of things that might have made up whatever it is we are studying? I seem to think that this part does not only apply strictly to the "adaptive unconscious" type of emergence. I feel that it applies to all studies of all types of emergence. However, I also feel that it is impossible to completely understand and figure out all the simple things that make up something vastly more complex. It is difficult to try and fathom how certain simple things interacted with each other and the environment. I feel that there are some cases where maybe we could try and do this, but we will never have the complete answer, but instead have it "less wrong".

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