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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Book critique by Tiffany Ngan


The author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, believes in the power of “rapid cognitions” to affect our decisions and develop into an adaptive consciousness. Blink explores these fascinating rapid cognitions which allow the brain to process information in the blink of an eye and reach correct conclusions. After understanding and honing these cognitions it is possible to develop an adaptive consciousness that will allow us to make decisions quicker and more accurately, based only on necessary input. In his book, Gladwell defines the adaptive unconscious as a "giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings." (Gladwell, 11) To state it simply, Gladwell believes in our initial intuitions, or our primary experiences. Within his book he proves his point by giving several examples of the adaptive unconscious' ability to distinguish patterns and thereby alter a person's behavior before our I-function is conscious of the patterns. Gladwell’s book is written with an organized structure with arguments both for and against his general thesis, both which still support his conclusions in the end. He also writes, using language for a wide audience with the minimum number of technical terms, a style that provides an interesting and uncluttered transmission of ideas and questions.

Gladwell's belief in the adaptive unconscious' ability to quickly and accurately assess a situation using only the bare minimal details conflicts with the mindset of this information age of computers and expansive technology. We are given more and more information each day in the thought of being able to make more inclusive and accurate decisions. However this is not always the case. In an example, Gladwell tells us about an a U.S. army simulation which pitted a blue army team with computer matrixes and models tracking and analyzing military, economic, and political factors associated with the conflict, while providing military commanders direct contact with units on the ground. This blue team was placed opposite to a red team with a rogue chief on it who had access only to a limited amount of resources and technology. The blue team was able to use their large amounts of information to predict the possible movements of the red team’s movements due to their limited resources, supposedly lifting the "fog of war." However the conclusions of the simulation show us that the exact opposite happens. The large amounts of information at the disposal of the blue team actually slowed their decision making process down, commanders would demand more information and ignore their instincts that would have been honed from a life of experiences. The red team however relied on the individual decisions of many smaller platoon units and used only the minimal vital information. The red team set up "allow[ed] people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly...enable[ing] rapid cognition."(Gladwell, 119) The red team in the end was able to out maneuver the blue team and set up a devastating attack. Only with certain un natural limitations in a second simulation, was the blue team able to win using their technology. Examples like this one and more, where less information was actually more helpful and accurate, advocate reliance on rapid cognition and create a persuasive body of evidence for Malcolm Gladwell's theory.

It is important to note that Gladwell acknowledges problems with the rapid cognition associated with the adaptive unconscious. This is his backwards argument that validates his ideas. No idea is full proof and allows the audience to understand the limitations of rapid cognitions. In the third chapter about the Warren Harding Error (“Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men”), Gladwell illustrates some of the limits associated with split second judgments. He explains how cultural factors, such as racism and even stature, will possibly affect snap judgments. "The Warren Harding Error" is named after Warren G. Harding, one of the most inept presidents of all time, who won elections because he looked and sounded presidential despite his lack of political position and political experience. Harding succeeded because his audience’s first impression of him told them that he was a stately and distinguished man. Hindsight tells us this was obviously an incorrect observation; Gladwell however understood the problems associated with rapid cognition and still ultimately believed that our adaptive conscious, more often than not, can discern the true nature of a person within the first two seconds of meeting them.

This book is limited in its writing style. Due to his wish to write to a large audience on a purely philosophical plane, non biological or psychological, Gladwell cannot give a more detailed and in-depth description of how the adaptive unconscious and rapid cognition work. While clearly the adaptive unconscious exists outside the I-function (which forms our adaptive consciousness) Gladwell fails to describe the interaction between the I-function and it’s affects on what can be seen as the un-conscious which gives us our primary experiences and allows us to make snap judgments. There is no described interaction between these two parts of the brain. Furthermore, while Gladwell's examination of the adaptive unconscious enthralls his audience, he fails to examine the cultural affects he speaks about when using the IAT tests on our snap decisions and how to override such initial reactions. He acknowledges that there are social factors which affect our decisions and associations, but does not explain how these come into play in our daily decisions. There are open ends such as these due to his refusal to explain the mechanisms of his theories. This book overall is just an exploration of an idea in it’s raw form and written to inspire further thought. What controls our adaptive unconscious and how can we train it if we are not to be aware of it? Unconsciousness becomes consciousness once the I-function kicks in. So how are we to hewn our unconscious in spite of our cultural and social environments? Blink is admirable for tackling a wide and raw idea, providing a look into a cognitive phenomenon. As a book, it is more useful as a reference guide rather than a complete theory. However, the theory which Gladwell proposes is penetrative and insightful, and should be covered in the Neurobiology and Biology course.