— The Power of Thinking Without Thinking — 

Three intriguing premises underpin Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent examination of human interaction. First, “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Second, “when should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them? …When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood.” And third, Gladwell wants to convince us that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.” In fact, he says that’s his most important task.

As in his first book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell is ever the cultural storyteller. His examples in Blink are many and varied — as is human nature and the circumstances in which it acts. Gladwell begins with a situation in the art-and-museum world and takes us on a journey through the realms of gambling, car sales, furniture design, food tasting, music, acting, medicine, police work, the military, and athletics, to name just a few. By the time we finish reading, the connections are not as far-fetched as that simple listing might seem.

Gladwell opens by describing an artifact being considered for acquisition by a famous museum. Was this ancient statue the real thing — and if it was, how could the museum be certain, since its provenance was incomplete? An intensive review process lasting fourteen months involved geologists and legal experts, as well as tests with electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, among others. But while scientists and lawyers immersed themselves in analysis, many art experts said the statue just “didn’t look right.” When seeing the piece for the first time, their initial reactions — the blink of Gladwell’s focus — told them something was wrong. And ultimately, those initial two-second impressions proved right. The statue was a modern forgery.

So how could all the analysis have been wrong? That’s the dilemma of “rapid cognition,” or “thin-slicing.” We’ve been conditioned to disregard snap judgments and put our faith in thorough investigation. Gladwell contends that we can achieve greater benefit from intelligently combining those two modes of knowing. In fact, we can gain the most by educating ourselves about our ability to thin-slice and by appreciating the context for our snap-judgment perceptions.

Most humans have the capacity for instantaneous assessment — snap judgment — of the information contained in facial expressions. Based on the entire range of muscles used in a human face, scientists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen identified a total of forty-three movements they termed action units.

Action units can be combined or layered to create as many as ten thousand “visible facial configurations.” Of these, about three thousand seem to ‘mean’ something, resulting in an “essential repertoire of human facial displays of emotion.” That knowledge accumulates in each of us from birth and is critical to our existence because most of us get most of our information about the world and our place in it from ‘reading’ emotions on others’ faces.

A very thoughtful description of what happens — or doesn’t — in the case of autism serves to highlight the survival value of what Gladwell calls “mind-reading,” which, in this context, is a sensitivity to the information conveyed through slight changes in facial features. Most of us “read” faces and quickly extrapolate what people are thinking. An autistic person sees only objects — a person’s face is the same as a light switch or a car. Autistic people don’t generate a context for what they see and are clueless about what may be going on in someone else’s mind.

At the other end of the spectrum, Gladwell points out that children who grow up in homes where alcoholism or other forms of physical and emotional abuse are prevalent become extremely sensitive to fleeting changes in facial expression because their lives truly depend upon the ability to “read” the alcoholic’s or abuser’s mind and get out of the way.

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, the contents of our minds show most often on our faces. That’s not an argument for becoming a stone-face; it points out the need to educate ourselves about when we can trust our instincts and when we can’t.

The range of Gladwell’s examples makes the information he presents useful to virtually everyone. He shows how a counselor can predict divorce using only four factors (defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, contempt) through ‘sideways’ observation of married couples talking about their pets. Another study found that the doctors who are likely to be sued for medical malpractice can be identified by their personal treatment of patients: do they rush through patient interactions, ignore them, or treat people poorly? If so, they’re more likely to end up in court.

Gladwell also dives into the speed-dating phenomenon and shows how we can be accurately assessed — as much as 95 percent of the time — by strangers whose only knowledge of us comes from time spent looking around our homes or personal spaces.

Also debunked are myths about two police officers in a car being more effective than one (one person has to wait for back-up, which reduces the possibility of violence, while two officers often succumb to peer pressure and bravado under stress, which can lead to injuries that didn’t have to happen), and the marketing opportunities lost by a blind dependence on focus group information.

In one key Blink section, we see the effects of rapid decision-making, especially the kind required in military combat. In a war game, Blue Team (US and allies, with access to all the information in the world) is skunked big-time by a “rogue commander” with minimal resources (Red Team, headed by a “gunslinger” — a retired US Marine with two tours in Vietnam under his belt), who recognizes that survival, let alone winning, means he has to be creative. Blue Team, on the other hand, succumbs to ‘analysis paralysis.’

Another important Blink topic deals with “priming” — demonstrating how bias (for or against) can be induced through strategic placement of words and pictures. Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which examines the role “unconscious [i.e. implicit] associations play in our beliefs and behaviors.” Several interactive examples are provided in the book, or you can try your hand at an online version.

Gladwell was astounded at his own responses to the test — and his inability to change his responses, no matter how many times he repeated the test. But awareness is critical, because awareness of bias can help us avoid the “Warren Harding Factor,” where we project leadership or other capability onto people simply because they’re tall, handsome/beautiful, or sound authoritative, even if they may not have skill or substance. As communicators who work on many levels, that awareness can help us be more effective in our interactions.

Gladwell makes us aware of the value of snap judgments, as well as how they can be distorted. Why do these judgments become corrupted and why are we usually so oblivious to that fact? “Because we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.”

When confronted with such prejudice, what must we do? “Solve the problem,” says Gladwell. Don’t be “resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye.” Learn to “control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place,” and thereby “control rapid cognition.” When we control rapid cognition, “we can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.”

More is at stake than just the obvious, too. We don’t need a lot in order to improve situations and opportunities. We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, invest huge sums of money in the problem, or build new facilities. We just need to blink.

By “paying attention to the tiniest detail, the first two seconds” of the interaction, we can see people and situations for who and what they truly are. In just the blink of an eye.

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Published: New York: Little, Brown and Company ©2005

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos