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Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Colette's picture

            Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink,” about the usefulness and importance of rapid cognition illustrated and sparked questions about our complex and mysterious brain. Gladwell’s theory, “thin-slicing,” is the concept that our unconscious mind makes lightning decisions based on preconceived notions about observed behaviors and situations. In neuro-biology, this phenomenon was demonstrated through nervous system perception and senses studies. Sometimes snap judgments which depend on thin slicing can be highly useful when making life and death decisions. Thin slicing uses thin slicing uses less than the entire data base and allow judgments to be made in a snap, but one must be able to properly interpret observations or else detrimental effects could result.

            In his book, Gladwell explains how peoples abilities, including those of experts, to "thin slice" can be tainted by their biases based on previous experiences. The Implicit Association Test demonstrated this phenomenon. This test measures the strength of automatic association between mental representations of concepts in memory. Subjects rapidly categorize different stimuli objects and the quicker responses are interpreted as being more strongly associated in memory.  For example, Gladwell (and I )took the racial IAT and because he had grown up in a predominately white community, he subconsciously associated certain positive attributes to white people and certain negative attributes to people of color. He did not intentionally do this but because of how society groups certain characteristics, Gladwell and myself were more quickly able to associate certain traits with different types of people (note: IAT is measured by reaction time and how fast people associate certain traits).  

            Gladwell illustrates successful and non-successful thin slicing with several examples. One event where thin slicing was a godsend turned up in what seemed to be a typical house fire. Firefighters doused what seemed to be a typical kitchen fire with what should have been enough water to put it out. One firefighter realized that something was wrong and signaled all his men to get out. Moments later, the floor they were standing on collapsed because the fire was actually in the basement not the kitchen. This thin slicing clearly was beneficial in that it saved lives.

            A not so successful example of thin slicing, however, was the 1999 mistaken killing of Amadou Diallo. Four New York city police officers driving past Diallo who was outside his apartment. Mistakenly thinking Diallo was a wanted serial rapist, they chased him down, and shot him 41 times before even trying to question him. Diallo, who was new to the country, was spooked by the policemens’ abrupt chase and did not understand what they were asking of him. As a result he was not able to explain himself. The polices’ snap judgments did not give them enough time to realize that Diallo was the wrong suspect! This snap judgment clearly was wrong and an innocent man died.

            These two stories demonstrate the importance of making correct snap judgments. The question now is how decisions can be life saving in one case and so destructive in another? In lectures, we discussed the structure of responses which are the consequences of inputs and outputs, and how outputs do not always require inputs. We determined that motor symphonies are produced by a series of neural outputs and lead to spatio-temporal pattern of activity across lots of motorneurons. Where do snap judgments fall in this process?

            When patterns are created, sometimes there is a starting point, an initial experience that initiates a pattern. Sometimes the patterns stem from an intermediate point (as discussed in class, boxes within boxes). Similarly, it seems that when making decisions, one often looks at the smallest details that at first glance do not seem to matter though they are in fact the key factor. It may be that thin slicing start in the middle of boxes whereas carefully thought out judgments have more of a distinct starting point. “Blink” is a book that describes the importance of the smallest details, which are synonymous with the boxes within boxes concept (the intermediate boxes between the initial and final are like the details).

Another factor that we must consider is that perhaps thin slicing are the foundation/initial wiring for motor symphonies.  Snap judgments seem to occur in situations not typically encountered. In situations where our nervous system has never gone through that novel experiences, it is difficult for it to react because it, our nervous system, only  “knows about,” “can respond to,” “has information about” things it has specialized neurons to transducer signals about. These specialized neurons would have to have been created through experience.  Therefore, when comparing snap judgments to more typical judgments, it seems we take time to rethink what we have done in the past or what we have seen someone else do. Either way, the thought processes is more familiar As it takes time to recall that familiarity. This suggests that thin slicing are boxes waiting to be unlocked or created.

Gladwell points out that knowing too much can be dangerous. As demonstrated in class, through a series of experiments, information from our senses such as seeing versus hearing can lead to confounding results. For example, in class we demonstrated that listening and watching the same thing can actually be interpreted very differently by different people. First, we listened to a you tube video of a guy we thought was saying ba da  ba da but when watching him say “ba da,” it seemed like he was saying “va ba va ba,” which is something entirely different. Gladwell mentions, through his example of doctors misdiagnosing based on being given too much information that sometimes having too much information can interfere with the accuracy of judgment. Gladwell points out that many people are prone to commit the Warren Harding Error. They see something and they somehow allow their first impressions to hide or obscure pieces of information other than what is initially seen.

            Overall, it seems that we must be careful with the amount of information our nervous system absorbs and understand and trust our thin slicing abilities. We must use the information we gathered from our outputs to create the correct stories in our head. That way, when faced with a difficult decision in a high pressured situation, we will be able utilize our thin slicing ability and execute a situation properly. When these stories are properly established, by balancing between deliberate and instinctive thinking, we can improve the quality of decisions we make.