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The Adaptive Unconscious: Commentary on Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"

Jen Benson's picture

            This book has helped me to understand the self, identity, and social interaction as often guided by processes below the level of consciousness. In this book Gladwell describes a construct he terms the “adaptive unconscious,” that processes incoming information without our conscious awareness, producing judgments and behaviors within seconds. Themes elaborated here expand on discussions we have had in class, particularly those of accountability for our actions and what constitutes conscious choice. (Gladwell argues that although unconscious processes occur automatically and without our awareness, that through concerted effort or practice and through altering our environments we can in fact learn to control even implicit aspects of the self). For me this book was a highly useful part of the course and advanced my understanding of the nervous system’s relationship with behavior and identity.           

This book describes the moments in which we make split-second decisions and judgments, for example in forming impressions and evaluations of people. It provides insight into mechanisms functioning below the level of consciousness that guide much of our behavior. Gladwell describes a diverse array of life situations in which the most successful and effective decisions depend on a quick sizing up of the situation or person being encountered. He calls this process “thin slicing,” or the extraction of a pattern that may be used to derive reliable predictors of how that construct will behave later and thus how to react to it accordingly. These signatures or “fists” do not include other irrelevant information that may actually complicate the accuracy of a judgment or the appropriateness of a decision. For example, John Gottman, a research psychologist, can predict with 95% accuracy the likelihood of that couple will last another fifteen years, after viewing only an hour of their interaction. From this he can extract a pattern of that relationship charting the four most important emotions predicting relationship endurance: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and especially contempt. All kinds of relationship specialists such as clinical psychologists, marital researchers and marital therapists are not as effective as he is at predicting relationships outcomes, because his thin slicing of relationships allows him to focus on only the most important information in a relationship. A similar story in the introduction tells of a Greek sculpture purchased by the Getty that according to much seemingly reputable evidence was the real thing. Several art historians, however, upon looking at the statue knew instantly that it was not real and could not readily articulate why. Their suppositions were in fact later proved by more solid evidence. Gladwell also describes a gambling game in which people draw cards from piles with different levels of gain and loss. People stop drawing from the pile with the largest losses before they even realize they are doing so, and in fact physiologically respond to the stress induced by drawing from this pile before they are consciously aware that it is a risky pile. These examples demonstrate perfectly how sometimes unconsciously maintained constructs in our nervous system can allow us to adapt to a situation even more effectively than can our consciously guided efforts.           

Gladwell describes how this “adaptive unconscious,” in processing information from our environments below the level of consciousness, frees up cognitive resources for us to consciously perform other mental tasks, executing quicker judgments with even less information. Different situations in turn activate either conscious or unconscious modes of processing, meaning that decisions made unconsciously are made by different parts of the brain and motivated by different aspects of one’s personality than decisions made consciously. These decision-making processes are said to be primarily governed by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Those with damage to this area may be highly intelligent and rational but lack the ability to make sound judgments and focus on what is really important. A central theme of the book is the contention that people assume that a quality decision can only come from concerted effort and lots of time. Such a perspective must be let go of to fully digest the implications of the book.            

In fact, conscious processes may inhibit the effectiveness of unconscious processes. For example, Gladwell describes the military game entitled Millenium Challenge in which a threatening situation likely to occur was simulated in a billion-dollar military game, administered by the Pentagon. The Blue team, staffed by the Joint Forces Command of the U.S. military, relied on a systematic, thorough and rational study of all the factors that should be related to warfare. The Red Team, headed by Paul Van Riper, relied on his quick judgments based on much less information and intuition from years of military experience. The Red Team won in the first simulation, and Gladwell cites this as a perfect example of when thin-slicing can in fact be more effective. Thicker slices often cloud the waters and introduce irrelevant information that does not lead the way towards solid decision-making. The Red Team was so focused on countless factors that they could not react quickly enough to the Blue Team’s idiosyncratic and quick attack methods. Gladwell also describes how looking at someone’s room can inform a perfect stranger more accurately about that person’s levels of conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to new experiences than ratings on the same scales of that person’s best friends. Thin-slicing is something we do all the time and in many different life situations.           

Due to a general lack of awareness and understanding of the unconscious processes guiding our behavior, it is often difficult or even impossible for us to articulate how or why we behave. For example, Gladwell tells about an expert tennis player who could almost always predict when a server was about to double fault, but had no idea how he knew. Similarly, gifted tennis players believe that their wrists perform a certain movement when they serve, when in fact they don’t, just as Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, was absolutely sure he could see the bat hitting the ball when this is in fact impossible. He did not understand the behavioral source of his success either. Another demonstration of the inaccessibility of unconscious reasoning comes from priming studies. Through the subliminal presentation of words, people can be influenced to behave in certain ways or even change their performance outcomes without their conscious awareness. The most striking example to me that was cited in the book was the description of stereotype threat study by Steele & Aronson. When black students were administered questions from the Graduate Record Examination, students asked to indicate their race beforehand answered half as many questions correctly. Furthermore, when they were asked to explain why they had performed so badly they blamed their own lacking intellect, which means they were not even aware of how the prime had affected their performance. Thus even unconsciously guided behavior can have important consequences. Such compelling evidence prompts me to seek more understanding and control over my own unconscious.           

This book also made me seriously reconsider my definition of identity. Gladwell makes clear that the adaptive unconscious sometimes conflicts greatly with one’s conscious understanding of oneself. For example, in a study modeled on speed-dating paradigms, people were additionally given questionnaires before and after their sessions in which they indicated what characteristics they were looking for in a potential partner. While someone may explicitly state that certain factors are more important in what they are looking for, their immediate levels of attraction to people in fact may be influenced by different factors. Also, evidence from the Race Implicit Associations Task has found that people’s explicitly stated attitudes towards African Americans often contrast greatly with how quickly they can pair positive concepts with pictures of those groups in comparison to their ease of pairing them with negative concepts. Their implicit and explicit attitudes towards race are thus governed by different aspects of the self. Even implicit attitudes can in turn influence behavior. They can predict behavior towards minority groups, especially in spontaneous situations and without our conscious input, such as how close we sit to them or how much eye contact we give. In fact, in a study by Word, Zanna, and Cooper, (1974) Princeton male undergraduates were asked to interview both white and black candidates. Participants did not show prejudice when asked to explicitly state their attitudes, but prejudiced attitudes did come through in how they interviewed the black candidates. They sat farther away from them and interviewed them for a shorter amount of time than they did with white candidates, overall acting in a manner that elicited less effective interview responses. I believe if these people had taken the race IAT they would have found that they had a strong automatic preference for white people even if none of them believed themselves to be prejudiced. In fact this is what most people score on the race IAT, even if they are of African American origin. It is really valuable to consider how these inconsistencies of self may arise, especially in the context of treatment of other people.           

The book describes other situations in which snap judgments can have less positive outcomes. The unconscious can be subverted or disabled as people process emotions, interests and sentiments that might compete with its goals. He believes these reasons can be fully delineated, understood, and controlled. Still, Gladwell’s arguments seriously call into question the concept of free will and whether we can in fact be held accountable for actions that are influenced by processes of which we are unaware, which in turn are affected by aspects of the environment to which we are not consciously attuned. For example, he narrates the story of the Amadou Diallo shooting by police officers, arguing that in those few moments it occurred the police officers were in a physiological state that greatly decreased their abilities to attend to highly useful information in the situation. They were, in effect, momentarily autistic in that they were most focused on information in their environment that did not allow them to behave appropriately, and that consequently led them to kill a man. Thus he explains the actions of these policemen as arising from the automatic responses of their nervous systems, in a way dismissing them of fault from the crime. These decisions occurring in only a few seconds in fact are activated by our instinctual responses to life-or-death situations. Policemen receive training so that their split-second judgments may be better and possibly save lives. Thus, despite these gross miscalculations which occur on a daily basis, Gladwell believes that these sources of instincts failing can be clearly understood and controlled.            

Gladwell’s arguments suggest that this newfound knowledge of unconscious processes and their power over our behavior creates a responsibility for us to alter our environments in such a way that we make the best decisions. For example, in his discussion of the Implicit Associations Task, (which measures how quickly people can associate the faces of minorities and other marginalized groups with positive and negative concepts) he also describes how people’s results on the race IAT can be changed if prior to taking it they are exposed to images or information about black people with positive connotations like Martin Luther King, Jr. Gladwell contends that putting ourselves in environments that expose us to minorities can alter our stereotypes of them and thus affect our treatment of and automatic reactions to them. Even if race and other implicit attitudes operate on at least two levels, he seems to feel that we can be held accountable for even our automatic associations that are not governed by conscious choice at the time of their occurrence. He describes how one can train himself to make better spontaneous snap judgments, for example in the cases of Paul Ekman, who spent seven years developing an intricate system to identify 3,000 different emotions on people’s faces which he can now apply with ease. The rest of us can similarly develop out abilities to thin-slice well and potentially reap great rewards.           

Gladwell makes some ambitious claims in his book, asserting that wars, marketing, job offers, and the entire world could be more effectively managed if people had better understandings of their unconscious selves and knew how to cultivate them. After reading this book I am convinced that what I’ve read could in fact help me make better decisions and improve my own life. A description of the book’s general format is also worth commenting on. The book is structured in such a way that Gladwell introduces a narrative, explains its conceptual relevance, and then proceeds to begin a whole other narrative also relevant to his conclusions but going in a different direction. Information and anecdotes were also sometimes relayed many times which at times felt tedious and overblown but also helped to make clear that these principles apply in a wide variety of everyday life situations.             

After reading this book I wish the course had focused more on certain psychological and cognitive principles that guide nervous system functioning and thus behavior. It would have been highly interesting to me to discuss the concept of free will with the new understanding that processes of which we are unaware guide so many crucial decisions and interactions, including our treatment of other people. I would have liked to discuss whether unconscious attitudes or explicitly stated attitudes are more representative of someone’s “true” self. For example, if somebody says he is not racist and in fact works to promote equal rights, what should we make of this if he takes the IAT and finds out he has a strong automatic preference for white people over black people? Which of the attitudes is a more accurate representation of their true attitude? Both of them can guide behavior, and the attitude uncovered by the IAT in fact may guide his behavior in a way of which he is unaware. The concluding chapter of the book describes how orchestra conductors could not believe that women could perform so well on instruments that have for centuries been thought only for males. I think the attitudes of which we are unaware can in fact be even more dangerous simply because we are unaware of their effects on our behaviors towards and reactions to people. We have talked a lot about neurobiological processes that occur without our conscious awareness or without our direct choice for them to occur (such as action potentials, and visual perception). The fact that our perceptions and treatment of people can be so strongly guided by stereotypes and preexisting associations with whatever categories we might assign them to makes me think  we have even less control over our behaviors than we thought, even within the realm of social interaction. Gladwell describes how these categorical associations guiding person perception result in some people being paid more than others, car dealers making fairer offers to white males, and even in the wrong people being put in office. To think that so many important decisions made in the world can be partially guided by completely arbitrary information and below the level of consciousness is a scary thought.

            Furthermore, information in this book suggests the existence of several levels of identity, in that different aspects of the brain can in fact conflict in their conceptions of self and motivations for behavior. It would have been interesting in class to discuss the relationship of neurobiology to identity with this information in mind. What the book contends is that many meaningful behaviors like judgments of people can be influenced by constructs completely out of our conscious control. What, then, can be said to be tied to the true roots of our identity? Such questions stimulated by reading this book have been highly valuable for me in studying neurobiology and behavior. This book would be well-suited for anybody looking to understand how they form impressions and make decisions of which they are totally unaware.


Serendip Visitor's picture


i was looking for a summary and i found this and i was so excited but its so fucking long i might as well just read the book oml good job tho thanks i guess fml help me

--lowkey annoyed teenager

sorry for the random "lingo" that i used if anyone reads this rip

Paul Grobstein's picture

the unconscious and judgements/identity

Maybe the "true roots of our identity" are actually in the dynamic interaction between the "adaptive unconscious" and the "I-function"/"story teller"? And its in that interaction that we should look for "free will" as well?