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Book Report: "Blink" and the Role of the Unconscious in Thought

Molly Pieri's picture

Can we know something without knowing how we know it? This is precisely the question that Malcolm Gladwell sets out to ponder in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Looking at scientific experiments from laboratories nation-wide, Gladwell explores the fascinating phenomenon of “thin-slicing”, or making snap-judgments without consciously engaging in the decision making process. These “thin-slices”, Gladwell asserts, are surprisingly accurate—sometimes even more so than the decisions we make after long hours of careful consideration and reflection. One particularly interesting question raised by this study is the implications it brings to bear on the process of thought. Our brains, home to both our conscious and unconscious selves, are known to be the organ which facilitates thought. But thought has historically been, and remains today, to be widely considered a process primarily of the conscious mind. Gladwell’s intriguing work prompts readers to question how we categorize the process of thinking and to reconsider the role which the unconscious mind plays.

Thin-slicing, Gladwell explains, “refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” (Blink, pg.23) The ability to thin-slice rests in what Gladwell calls the adaptive unconscious: “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning”.(Blink, pg. 11) While most of us are comfortable allowing our unconscious handle simple things like the mechanics of walking or regulation of the spleen, the idea that part, or sometimes all, of a complex judgment and decision making process could be carried out by an unconscious part of ourselves makes us uneasy. And yet, according to psychologist Timothy Wilson, “the mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious… The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.” (Blink, pg 12) It seems, then, that we leave a great deal more to our unconscious than simple bodily mechanics.

A natural response to this proposition is, ‘but surely, that can’t be right.’ After all, for thousands of years we have touted conscious thought to be the pinnacle of human evolution. How can the adaptive unconscious be half as reliable as the flagship of humanity? And if the adaptive unconscious is something on which we cannot depend, how can we trust it to make decisions for us? But as Gladwell points out, the adaptive unconscious can be relied upon—sometimes more so than our conscious thought processes. Blink is filled with situations, from games of chance to personality tests to selling cars, in which thin-slicing using the adaptive unconscious had provided more accurate results than careful, conscious decision making.

A particularly memorable example, with which Gladwell opens Blink, is the story of a museum which purchased a rare type of statue. Over a period of three months, experts within the field examined the statue and declared it to be authentic. The museum’s curator showed the statue to an archeologist who, after one quick look at the piece, advised the curator “try to get your money back”. (Blink, pg 6) The story, although anecdotal, nicely depicts the point Gladwell strives to make. The statue did prove to be false. By thin-slicing, the archeologist’s adaptive unconscious was able to see this in a moment where a panel of experts utilizing logical, rational and above all conscious scrutiny was not.

Gladwell goes on in his book to site this triumph of thin-slicing in examples with more scientific bearing. He references a study in which a scientist, by listening to just 4 ten-second clips of a doctor-patient conversation, was able to predict which doctors were most likely to be sued for malpractice as by performing an in-depth analysis of the doctor’s patient-relations skills. He also describes a study in which college students evaluate a professor’s teaching. One group writes their evaluation after having taking a class under the professor for a semester and one group after having listened to a short clip of the professor lecturing, never having met or heard of him or her before. The evaluations of both groups show astonishing correlation to each other. Clearly the unconscious deserves more credit for thinking than we tend to allot it.

But what would it mean to give credibility to this sort of unconscious thinking? Gladwell calls for the acceptance of the notion that sometimes we can know something without knowing how we know it, and he criticizes American culture for demanding that all knowledge by logically justified and foot-noted. But isn’t Blink just this sort of endeavor? The books a whole strives to scientifically justify and foot-note the process of the adaptive unconscious and thin-slicing. What bothers us so much about the notion of a thinking unconscious that even its most vocal advocate reverts to a conscious thought process in his attempt to argue the adaptive unconscious’s case?

Perhaps it is the idea that to allow the unconscious the power of thought must necessarily imply the abandonment of reasoned, logical, conscious thought as well. This however is not the case. To accept the power of the adaptive unconscious is not to deny the usefulness or even necessity of conscious thought, nor is it to abandon reason and rationale. A more appropriate conception of the integration of the adaptive unconscious into mainstream society would be the re-categorization of thought as a property of both the conscious and the unconscious mind. Thus thinking would not just be an act of an active agent but also the act of a passive subject. Given, thought could no longer be viewed as that which separates man from beast, as it seems likely that many animals have some form of an adaptive unconscious too, but re-categorizing thought in this way would serve to open new doors in the way we as a culture act, respond, and plan. By further exploring and utilizing the adaptive unconscious and developing the ability of thin-slicing the way we currently develop our conscious thinking skills in schools and universities, we could open up new ways of being in the world.


Works Cited:

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Copyright 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell
Published by Little, Brown and Company: Time Warner Book Group