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Blink—A Journey Into the Unconscious

AriannahM's picture

    Blink, by Malcom Gladwell, is a non-fiction work which examines the assumptions and conclusions that people reach each day through a series of unconscious decisions.  How are these opinions and decisions made without us conscious of them?  This book gives the reader incredible insight to the inner workings of the sub-conscious by providing several examples of instant “gut” feelings and judgments.  Gladwell highlights the first impressions and reactions of art experts, marriage counselors, consumers, political leaders, military leaders and musical experts to illustrate the complexity and still vastly unexplored field of unconscious reasoning.  The idea of unconscious reasoning is easily equated with I-function.

            In the early 1980’s the J. Paul Getty museum looked into buying a statue that supposedly dated back to the sixth century B.C.  “It was what is known as a kouros—a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forwards and his arms at his sides” (Gladwell 3).  Due to the few number of kouros in the world, there was a very in depth investigation that followed the uncovering of this statue.  The Getty had the papers verifying the statue analyzed by lawyers and had the statue examined by a geologist.  “…[the geologist] spent two days examining the surface of the statue with a high-resolution stereomicroscope.  He then removed a core sample measuring one centimeter in diameter and two centimeters in length from just below the right knee and analyzed it using an electron microscope, electron microbe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence” (Gladwell 4).  All of the quantative tests yielded results consistent with original pieces yet when art experts saw the statue they did not think it was real. “When Feerico Zeri and Evelyn Harrison and Thomas Hoving and Georgios Dontas – 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).  The kouros turned out to be a fake like the art experts predicted.  The immediate feelings the art experts experienced turned out to be valid.  These feelings are inexplicable and even when questioned about the feelings the people were unable to identify exactly why they had them.  Impulsive opinions and feelings can be incorporated into the idea of the I-function.  No one can unlock the secret of the sub-conscious workings of the I-function or of split second decision making. 

            University of Washington psychologist, John Gottman, has developed a very effective tool for predicting which marriages will be successful.  Gottman brings couples into his lab to film them during a disagreement.  After the video footage is gathered, researchers analyze the couples on a SPAFF (specific affect) scale.  The scale accounts for most emotions and identifies them by facial expressions, heart rate and foot or leg jiggling.  “Gottman has discovered that marriages have distinctive signatures, and we can find that signature by collecting very detailed emotional information from the interaction of a couple” (Gladwell 31).  Through this detailed analysis Gottman has shown that he can predict the outcome of marriages very well.  “If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95% accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later.  If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success is around 90%...The truth of a marriage can be understood in a much shorter time than anyone ever imagined” (Gladwell 22).  Gottman uses the SPAFF and his own knowledge and instincts to correctly predict the outcomes of marriages the majority of times.  This type of predictive knowledge is basically guessed and not actually known, yet Gottman is accurate a remarkable percentage of the time.  Blink highlights these nuances that allow for gut feelings and split second impressions.

            These are just two of the many exciting and important examples Gladwell uses to illustrate his point about impulsive judgment formation.  As the book continues the examples become less and less convincing in my opinion.  Gladwell begins to draw on weaker more specific examples.  For instance, instead of talking about an entire phenomenon (like the kouros example) he highlights Silvan Tomkins, a professor with a gift for “reading” people’s emotions.  Although it is remarkable that this man is able to tell a lot about different peoples just by watching their faces, to me, this is not an extraordinary gift.  Everyone reads people’s faces and emotions each day.  One person’s emotional reactions illicit situation specific responses in another person that then dictate their behavior.  Without understanding these social cues, the world would be a very frustrating place; one would always have to state exactly how they feel.  Each person has the same power as Professor Tomkins but not everyone has made a career out of perfecting it.  After chapter four, the book continues with examples like Tomkins.  They may be interesting and engaging passages to read but they don’t demonstrate Gladwell’s theory as well as the first examples.

            Overall, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell was an interesting and unique book.  It forced the reader to consider the origins of everyday judgments and decisions while simultaneously explaining that the origins remain largely unknown.  There is currently no known way to trace sub-conscious knowledge and assessments.  By continuing research and increasing awareness of this commonplace phenomenon, hopefully soon more will be known.  For now though, we have Gladwell’s interpretations and collection of facts and examples to help guide us to a better level of understanding.


Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink--the Power of Thinking Without Thinking. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.