Thinking Without Thinking


February 2006

Book Review: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

CIDMIconNewsletter Julie Bradbury, Independent Consultant

Were you entertained by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point? I was. So when I saw his new book Blink on a random trip through Borders, I grabbed it and couldn’t wait to start reading it. Even more than The Tipping Point, the title intrigued me. I wondered if the title meant in the blink of an eye.

Gladwell summarizes his focus in these words, “Blink is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives-the content and impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under stress.” I was on target; the book is about the knowing we experience in the blink of an eye.

The book’s structure is classic Gladwell. He presents his thoughts on the subject and supports them with real-life examples told in story form. In my opinion, this style is what makes his books interesting reading-quasi-scientific statements backed by unique stories.

Going deeper, the author explains that our thought process is handled by the adaptive unconscious, a giant brain computer that crunches large amounts of data in a blink. Adaptive unconscious has the power to make decisions and judgments based on very little information. For example, it can warn you of danger, set goals, and move you to action without a lot of effort to reach a conclusion. It is a skill that can be positive or negative and is sometimes undervalued. (If you want to explore this topic outside of Blink, you can look up psychologist Timothy Wilson’s work on adaptive unconscious.)

Gladwell was struck by the fact that we are naturally suspicious of this kind of quick decision. He was concerned we might miss a valuable decision-making tool by equating time and effort to quality. “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” He wrote the book to give us more understanding and to encourage us to respect and educate our “blink” abilities.

Along with adaptive unconscious, Blink introduces a concept called thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” It is also described as filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables. The author uses bird identification as an example. He talks about identifying birds by subjective impressions of movements from quick appearances-the way it turns its head, flies, turns about. Your impressions of its movements are the thin slices. When you see that bird again, you can identify it because it looks right. “You know what it is at a glance.”

On the other hand, Gladwell recognizes that a split-second decision can sometimes be wrong and spends time looking at what influences decisions. Some of these influences he calls priming effects. These effects “suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion, much of the time we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act . . . are a lot more susceptible to outside influence than we realize.”

He cites experiments on cooperation using college students to show that priming effects can be undetected. Suggestions made to the students before the test influenced their behavior, and they could not identify them as the factors in their behavior during the exit interviews.

To illustrate the dark side of rapid cognition, he recounts a story about how subliminal value placed on tall, dark, and distinguished men helped elect Warren Harding to the Presidency. He believes this Warren Harding error “is the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination.” He looks at preconceived notions, including racial prejudice. He directs the reader to a series of online tests on associations based on the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) devised by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek. These tests cover a series of relationships and reveal innate prejudices. One of the tests you can take is the Race IAT. Taking the test over and over again, Gladwell was surprised to discover that even he had a residual level of prejudice he could not remove. He was surprised because he is half Jamaican.

Another story he tells is of the mistaken shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. Here rapid cognition and extreme stress impacts led police to the wrong conclusion, and the man died. He calls this a mind-reading failure and goes into mind-reading theory. As he gets deeper into the subject, he goes into detail on reading people’s faces and the physiological basis of how we thin-slice other people. He shares information about how the mind works during extreme stress where it can seem to slow time down and talks about stress limiting your ability to function.

The author says whenever we have something that we are good at-something we care about-experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions. Other impressions outside of our passion and experience become shallow compared to where our expertise resides. He uses an example involving identifying the difference between Coke and Pepsi. This is a fun story because most of us think we can tell the difference, but he shows how it is surprisingly difficult. He tries a test using three colas with his friends and none of them got it right. Taste experts can tell the difference instantly.

Gladwell says, “It is possible to learn when to listen to that powerful onboard computer and when to be wary of it.” How do we educate our adaptive unconscious and overcome priming effects to get useful blinks? He believes that our experiences and environment generate our first impressions, and we have control over changing our first impressions “by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.”

His conclusion examines how the experience of selecting a musician for an orchestra has changed over the years with the result that today the best musicians are more fairly and quickly identified. Changing the environment for making decisions allowed the expertise of the judges to win over their pre-conceived beliefs. He uses this music case-in-point to illustrate his belief that rapid cognition can unerringly provide good results when we control the environment.

Before I began reading Blink, I anticipated finding new ideas and interesting real-life observations, and my expectations were mostly met. It was a quick read, only 254 pages in hardback. I thought the book presented interesting theories, recounted unusual stories, and offered a reasoned look at first impressions and the messages they send. It provided a rationale for increasing decision-making efficiency using blink capabilities. CIDMIconNewsletter


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