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What *blink* made me think

natsu's picture

Emergence That May Become Possible By ‘Blink'

Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting man. Despite the fact that after my first read of his book ‘Blink’ I was uncertain about how his discussions related to Emergence, because this book was so engaging, I couldn’t help but start looking for more information on him. When I heard Gladwell encourage the world of science to move from the search for ‘universals’ (the rules that govern the way all of us behave) to the embracement of variability, I had a strong feeling that there must be something valuable that Gladwell can contribute to our exploration of Emergence.

During my second read of "Blink" it struck me that what Gladwell attempts to do in his book is similar to what we have been doing through our discussions on the concept of Emergence; That is, he zooms into the simple things that are the source of a big phenomena by examining commonalities of various discipline. In addition, he exposes the readers to certain phenomena in the world that cannot be explained by simply looking at the individuals that make up the world, and attempts to move others to see the world in a different way‘Blink’ is rich with examples that illustrate just how often we make decisions without actually knowing why.

As long as we are conscious of our not knowing, most people generally feel uncomfortable about acting on our gut feelings. Gladwell suspects that we are innately suspicious of our rapid cognition. It is not hard to imagine that we have evolutionary developed to stop and think before we completely trust our intuitions. At the same time, studies show that we are also born with "adaptive unconsciousness" which allows us to make surprisingly accurate judgments from very little information. Though during our years of education, we are trained to think thoroughly and only trust our conscious thoughts when making decisions, there is evidence that shows that in fact, decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately (14).According to Gladwell, after years of exposure to certain situations, our minds obtain the skills for “thin-slicing” which refers to “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (23). When our unconscious engages in this process of thin-slicing, the mind goes through an accelerated and unconscious version of careful analysis through deliberate thinking, which is exactly why we are able to make surprisingly accurate judgments in a matter of seconds. As a result, sometimes the ability to act on our snap judgments can be extremely powerful.

However, there are also downsides to our tendency to “thin slice,” as very often we are not even aware that we are letting our unconscious dictate our behavior. Furthermore, when the entire population acts according to their unconscious it can lead to the emergence of enormously influential and sometimes dangerous phenomena. One prominent caveat is the issue of priming: the activation of certain associations that are made in our memory. What is seemingly frightful about priming is that consistent exposure to primes can have long term effects and significantly influence our future behaviors. Among the various examples that Gladwell gives in his book, the only occasion in which he actually experienced the mystery of the unconscious was when he performed the famous Implicit Association Test (IAT) The IAT is designed to seek out any bias that a subject holds by testing whether it requires the subject more time to accurately decide where a word belongs when the pairing of the target words is more difficult for our minds to accept. Gladwell was particularly mortified when he performed the Race IAT. The first trial of the test was easy; he only had to match words or images to pairings of African American with bad (displayed on one side of the screen) and European American with good (displayed on the other side of the screen). However, Gladwell could not help feeling terribly disturbed during his second trial in which he was required to match words or images to pairings of European Americans with bad and African Americans with good. Though Gladwell is himself half black and consciously has no desire to make pro-white associations, he experienced significantly greater trouble in the second trial. By the end of the test, the test, Gladwell mortified by the awful feeling of bias.  

The feelings that Gladwell had were what most people experience when they take the Race IAT. The test clearly shows that we for certain concepts like race, we associate “good” and “bad” with biased thoughts that we hold, and that our attitudes are controlled by two levels. There is our attitude on the conscious level and on the unconscious level, and what is most mysterious and somewhat disturbing is that they can affect how we spontaneously act in certain situations, even when they are completely incompatible.

But is there anything that we can do about this disturbing fact? If we are not even aware of being controlled by our unconscious, how can we control our behavior and act in a way that our conscious desires? Does this mean that since we are constantly bombarded with supraliminal stimuli, we are never able to escape the sea of primes that we are born in? 

These are questions that have been receiving increasing interest among social psychologists over the past decade. Mahzarin Banaji who developed the IAT claims that even very simple things such as the presence of an African American experimenter can reduce race bias, which suggests that biases that have been learned over the course of our lives are not completely engraved into our minds. In her research she also found that if a subject is told to think about positive black examplers such as  Martin Luther King, the individual shows much less bias than before. Thus, though there is no doubt that the test tells us something important about our unconscious, what we need to focus on  is not our lack of awareness of our subliminal decisions, but our lack of awareness of the potential influence that our unconscious thoughts  can have on our behaviors. The lesson of this test is to realize that because supraliminal stimuli can have a more powerful prevalent effect on our attitudes, we must make active efforts to fight our unconscious decisions.

At the end of ‘Blink’ Gladwell provides the readers with an example to illustrate how paying attention to our unconscious decisions can lead to a great change. He talks about trombonist Conant, and the musician’s experience at an audition for The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra more than 30 years ago. Luckily for Conant, the audition was screened, which meant that each candidate was invisible to the selection committee. When they heard Conant, the whole committee was awed; they wanted the trombonist to join instantly. But they were even more surprised when the screen went up and they saw Conant, a female musician, who according to the belief at that time should not have the capacity to play a masculine instrument like the trombone. After this incident, the music world realized that there was a problem that they had not realized. Until then, they had been holding auditions under the belief that the selection committee was using their pure first impression when listening to the candidate play. However, in reality their first impression had been ‘hopelessly corrupt’ (250) due to their unconscious bias, which is most probably one reason for the fact that until recently white men have dominated the world of classical music. Over the next years, the field of classical music underwent a worldwide revolution. All over the world, screened auditions became commonplace, and the number of female musicians holding top positions in competitive orchestras increased. Gladwell suggests that such small miracles are possible, if we learn to know our unconscious and “take charge of the first two seconds” (254) because “if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition” (253).

What is really important to note here is not the realization that a small unconscious bias had led to a big problematic situation, but that people all over the world decided to make small changes to change the situation. The message I received from ‘Blink; is that just noticing and trying to take control of the consequences of our unconscious behaviors is not enough; it is necessary that we take it one step further. In the real world there are also those who do not want others to realize that we are allowing our unconscious influence our decisions, and thus there are forces that prevent us from truly taking control. Since it is the additive effect of small things that makes a big difference, we must find a way to report to the world ‘This is what I noticed about our thought process. This is what I noticed about our consequent behaviors. This is an alternative way of thinking. This is an alternative way of acting.’ The ideas that Gladwell discusses in ‘Blink’ are not necessarily new. Research on the dangerous effects of our unconscious thought processes (e.g. how priming and associations can produce stereotyping, how marketers can manipulate our choices) have been performed for decades, and there are numerous papers based on experimental evidence that give stronger support for the arguments that Gladwell makes. Though some of the examples that Gladwell offers to support his argument appear to be slightly anecdotal, I find his approach valuable because Gladwell has successfully presented in laymen’s terms, the idea of the conscious and unconscious. This has allowed him to bring these concepts out of the lab and into the real world, where they can be used to create a real difference. It is only by reporting and letting the entire world conscious of the consequences of our unconscious behavior, that the sum and interactions of the small changes that each individual makes can lead to the emergence of a real significant change.