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“Did u get that?” A review of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

Pleiades's picture

“The part of our brain that leaps to conclusions…is called the adaptive unconscious. This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of…as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings…. Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever were faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use the [adaptive unconscious].”

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, takes the reader through a number of stories involving the ‘backstage process’ of the adaptive unconscious. This process enables us to process large amounts of information in a very short amount of time and act upon our conclusions without knowing exactly what happened. It is in the first crucial two seconds of exposure that this processing occurs, “Blink is a book about those two seconds” -Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell begins the book with something we are all very good at, although we may not know it- thin slicing.

Every time we meet someone for the fist time we effectively ‘thin slice’ them. Thin slicing is the ability to extract out of large amounts of information, the bits that are interesting to us. We are able to form a fairly accurate opinion of them without ever talking to them. Thin slicing is not limited to physical appearance, but mannerisms and behavior as well. Keep in mind that Gladwell is making the point that this is all happening unconsciously-not only our interpretation of another person, but also the persons behavior. This is best demonstrated by a study in which married couples were videotaped having a conversation about anything they wished. The psychologist running the study watched 15 minutes of their conversation and was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether the couple would still be married fifteen years later. He has created an art of thin slicing. What the rest of us do unconsciously is now a skill he is a master of. Gladwell would say he has quantified the adaptive unconscious, or brought it out from backstage. Considering our class discussion, we would say the psychologist has brought his I-function into this aspect of what would normally be unconscious processing. This is demonstrated with some of the optical illusions we saw in class that we were able to manipulate to see something else (such as the cube, or the woman at the mirror). Gladwell is vague about how thin slicing works, however in class we addressed this process not only systemically (the optical system), but behaviorally as well (as with our optical illusions).

However, Gladwell continues on to point out the shortcomings of thin slicing in what he calls the Warren Harding Effect (from president Warren Harding, who was perhaps a distinguished looking president, but possibly the most inept in history). By effectively summing up a person within seconds of meeting them, we may be blinded by preconceived prejudices (good or bad!). So in using parameters from our society to sum up a person, we can be bringing in stereotypes as well. I believe that however accurate most of the time, this makes thin slicing people a dangerous way to form an opinion of a person. In the case of Warren Harding, although at first glance (or thin slice), he came out on top because of his impressive physical stature, he was totally unqualified and proved inept at running the country. Gladwell is quick to acknowledge that thin slicing is no way to pick presidents, or anyone for a position of responsibility. But what about a situation? Gladwell shows thin slicing is not limited to people, but is an effective and necessary way to asses a situation in a short amount of time.

Legendary tennis coach Vic Braden has the ability to tell whether a player is going to double fault on a serve before he even hits the ball with his racket. Gladwell examines his skill as an example of thin slicing a situation. Braden’s adaptive unconscious is able to process the motion of the tennis player and predict the outcome of their serve. The astonishing thing is, although he has nearly a hundred percent accuracy rate, Braden has no idea how he does it. He does not know what factors he sees that grants him this ability. He cannot look at the tennis player serve and point out what is wrong, however he is able to make a snap judgment almost infallibly.

This is unconscious processing at its best. Not only is this an example of thin slicing a situation, it corresponds to some great things we talked about in class. The unconscious is clearly at play here, so as we have defined it the I-function is not involved. But even when coach Braden tries to use his I-function to make sense of what his unconscious is doing, he cannot. Similar to the partially blind man using his eyes to point at a light, the adaptive unconscious is able to function not only totally independently of the I-function, but is often times better at performing certain tasks than the I-function would be. This is all a little far from home, Gladwell next examines a function of the adaptive unconscious that changed my life.

What if I told you that simply by looking at some images or reading through a few simple sentences your grades could improve dramatically? You would possibly be intrigued, or perhaps think it was a hoax. It turns out that simply by being exposed to certain cues, without our even realizing it, our behavior can be dramatically enhanced, or radically declined. Gladwell examines this phenomenon, which he calls priming, in a few dramatic situations and ties it back to the active unconscious. In the first study, the primary investigator has one group of people think about what it means to be a professor and asks a second group think about what it would be like to be a soccer hooligan before playing the general knowledge game Trivial Pursuit. The group that was primed with professor-like thoughts got over ten percent more questions correct than the soccer hooligan group. They were not smarter, but Gladwell refers to them as being in a ‘smart’ frame of mind-which was enough to make the difference between a passing and failing grade. This is absolutely incredible, and says a lot about what it means to be ‘smart’ and ‘successful’ at school. If you THINK you are going to do well on a test, you WILL. Unfortunately it works the other way as well. In a separate study, when African-American students were asked to identify their race on a pre-test questioner, the simple act of checking the box next to African American was enough to prime them with negative cultural stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement. The number of items they got right was cut in HALF. Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong point that priming is a powerful thing. Personally I think this has incredible implications in our society. If ‘smart’ is really just a frame of mind, these social cues (such as African American=less intelligent) are shaping not only the results of standardized tests, but the way we interact with each other in business and other professional fields.

Malcolm Gladwell does a good job of examining some of the behavioral results of the adaptive unconscious. He gives great, entertaining examples and even points out the flaws in his own system. However, having read this book both before and after the class Neurobiology and Behavior, I have come to realize the book is lacking the neurobiology aspect. Gladwell is able to demonstrate the behavioral aspects of the results of the ‘active unconscious’ at work, while Neurobiology gave a little more insight into what is actually happening and what we can do to affect it. Together, the class and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink gave me a set of tools to better understand what is happening ‘up there’ and perhaps gave me the ability to influence it as well.

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. Time Warner Book Group. 2005