Tuesday, June 17, 2008

to blink or think is not the question

Malcom Gladwell wrote the book Blink to celebrate the mind's ability to make very adept judgments in the blink of an eye. These judgments are based on our intuition (the "gut" or "heart") and allow the human mind to make millions of calculations and decisions very quickly.

Gladwell is critical of those who ‘overthink’ things and don’t respect the value of the ‘blink’ decision simply because we don’t know how to articulate what makes the hairs on our neck stand up. Gladwell’s first example sees an art gallery acquire an ancient statue despite many experts believing the statue was fake based just on their visceral first impression (it was indeed fake.) Gladwell hammers home that the experts didn’t know how they knew the statue was fake, they_just_did.

The author of The Tipping Point does admit later in his book that there are some problems with the ‘blink’ judgment. It’s highly sensitive to a person’s experiences. Gladwell mentions a race experiment, which measured his ‘blink’ reactions to questions of race and achievement, and he learned that his ‘blink’ judgments discriminated much more than he did when making conscious, deliberate decisions.

Since Gladwell is black, it appears safe to say that his ‘blink’ associations are unequivocally bad (and/or damaging, etc.) in this case, while his deliberate associations are significantly better (if not ‘good’). Furthermore, Gladwell explained that the race experiment results could be easily manipulated by showing the respondent negative or positive images of black people beforehand. 1 point for thinking, 0 for blinking, in this case.

This example underscores a tangential point made by Gladwell that I think is VERY important: our "unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values."

I think Gladwell is correct that ‘blink’ reactions are not necessarily wrong simply because we can’t articulate the reasoning behind them. I do think that even framing a discussion of the matter with the title “Blink” is giving deliberate decision-making short-shrift, and I don’t think the world really needed another anti-contemplation lobbyist.

Blink decisions are decision-making shortcuts that are undoubtedly necessary (who wants to carefully weigh the pros and cons of every decision with which they are presented?), but the focus should be on overcoming the cognitive failings that sabotage our stated conscious values both subconsciously and consciously.

The question isn't blink or think, but how can we ensure our blinking and thinking isn't sabotaged by
"unconscious attitudes ... utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values."

1 comment:

Lloyd said...

I guess that makes me wonder if there's a distinction between gut reactions and extremely fast thinking (like knowing your multiplication tables) or rote memorization.

Or if those things are different - and if so then in what ways can a person train his gut reactions to coexist with his conscious ones?