At wits' end...
At wits' end...

My humble attempt at coming to terms with modern technology

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.




'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell

Ramya VasudevanRamya Vasudevan

Firstly, let me tell you it's an amazing read that will keep you hooked till the last page. As the author puts it, it's a book about 'The Power of thinking without thinking'. It tries to explain the power of our snap judgements and the immense possibilities for social welfare and improving mankind, if such subconscious thinking could be trained to be free from external influences or prejudices. Malcolm Gladwell in fact touches upon the real-life applicability of snap judgements and thin slicing, in varied fields like psychology, defense strategy, marketing, sales, market research etc. through various anecdotes. He claims that the outcomes of wars could be changed or the way the world functions could be influenced if people could pay heed to their snap judgements. But all this excitement doesn't stop the author from warning the readers against the situations where we need to be wary of our snap judgements, but he says, training and conscious effort could fine-tune what happens within the closed doors of our sub-conscious brain.

The first impression about something, the gut feeling or the hunch that something is right or isn't right, the intuition that we often find difficult to explain to others - that is what this book deals with. It also touches upon thin-slicing, which refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience. Ideally, these patterns get repeated through out the event/situation and hence, thin-slicing provides an effective approach to derive rapid conclusions about the event/situation, without having to spend a lot of effort analysing the entire event/situation. In one example, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how John Gottman and his team, after looking at only 3 minutes of a couple talking could still predict with fairly impressive accuracy who was going to get divorced and who was going to make it. Our brain makes similar predictions or judgements all the time - when we meet someone for the first time, while speed dating etc.; it's just that we are not consciously aware of it. As I have already mentioned, it is notable that the author relies a lot on research findings and discussions with real people (who have experiences with snap judgements, both positive and negative) to drive down his points. He also explains those instances vividly so as to make it palatable to the common man.

As the author himself explains, Blink is a book about those first 2 seconds that result in our snap judgements or decisions. Human brain has two ways of functioning; it has this conscious strategy, where it functions logically and definitively, but takes time to process the data and come to a conclusion. The second approach is what this book is concerned about, the one that operates below the surface of consciousness, but is quicker. Though its quicker, its functioning at the subconscious level makes it difficult for people to realize it or explain it. It sends messages through indirect channels, like the sweating of the palms of our hands etc., without letting the consciousness know what's happening. The reason why it's so quick is because it doesn't weigh every conceivable strand of evidence, it just takes into account what could be gathered in one glance. The part of the brain that leaps to conclusions like these is called adaptive unconscious. An example is the way we react to a truck that bears down on us suddenly. We don't weigh all the options at that instant, but we react quickly to save our life. But the author emphasises that the power of knowing in that first 2 seconds is not an in-born gift given magically given to a select few; it's an ability that needs to be cultivated carefully. A healthy combination of intuition and conscious thinking is what would serve our purposes and that needs effort.

Let me summarize the objectives of this book, as stated by the author:

  1. We live in a world which believes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste doesn't make waste, when our snap judgements and first impressions can offer a much better way of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince its readers of the simple fact that decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made consciously and deliberately.

  2. The second task of this book is to answer the question, when to trust our instincts and when to be wary of it. When our powers of recognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons and those reasons can be identified and understood. It is possible to learn when to listen to that powerful on-board computer and when to be wary of it.

  3. The third and the most important task of the book is to convince its readers that their snap judgements and first impressions can be educated and controlled.

To explain the first point, the author puts forth many anecdotes, like when a fire-fighter precisely knows that something is amiss and asks his team to back off, just in time for them to escape the collapse of the floor. It was not a conscious effort by the fire-fighter, but his brain picked up cues (like the fire was less noisy than usual, the fire was not responding to water the way it normally does, the way it felt hotter than normal kitchen fires) from around him and figured out that certain things are not right or normal, which made him decide to vacate the room asap. This is a beautiful example of thin-slicing and snap judgement.

The instances where we need to be wary of our instincts result when we have extreme stress situations or time-crunch coupled with some prejudices running deep down in our minds. The associations that we have in our minds, play a key role in the functioning of our unconscious. That's the reason why some people are quicker to realize that it's a gun when the image of a gun succeeds the image of an African-American than when it succeeds the image of a white American. The association that some people have between crimes and African-Americans make it quicker for their brain to make judgements that are biased.

I specifically love the part on mind reading, that has special reference to 'autism' (the condition of the brain that makes it mind-blind or blind to emotions, facial cues, gestures etc.). The author argues exposure to conditions like extreme stress or lack of time to respond to a situation, can make normal people quite autistic making them oblivious to the cues and variables that might otherwise get factored into their sub-conscious thinking. This could make their brain omit certain facts, add certain biases or prejudices leading to wrong or even disastrous results. Malcolm Gladwell attributes the increased issues of cops killing the drivers (often without any provocation) after high speed chases, to the adrenaline rush and the improper functioning of the sub-conscious brain under extreme stress situations. The solution is to slow things down when stress bogs you down; if time is under our control, the adaptive unconscious will be better equipped to make sound judgements. Permanent autistic conditions lead to very similar outcomes, where the person considers everything and everyone inanimate. No considerations based on facial cues (whether the driver is frightened or terrorized or just unable to move) or gestures (if he is trying to explain something or pick-up something from his pocket) are given importance often leading to crazy outcomes, when coupled with the prejudices and biases that already exist in our minds. Another reason for bad or inefficient snap judgement (or mind-blindness) is time-crunch, that is, when the person concerned doesn't have enough time to respond to the situation. An example could be the sudden assassination attempt of a prominent public figure that doesn't give his/her body guards enough time to process what's happening and respond accordingly as everything gets over in a matter of 2 or 3 seconds.

I will conclude by adding one more interesting aspect. The book mentions a Dave Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of 'On Killing', who argues that the optimal state of 'arousal', that is, the tange in which stress improves performance, is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats/minute. When Grossman measured the heart rates of sportsmen, he realized that for those who performed at their optimal level, at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem moving in slow motion. But very few people play in that optimal range. Most of us, under pressure get 'too' aroused and past a certain point, our brains begin shutting down so many sources of information making us useless and clumsy. Arousal leaves us mind-blind, which adversely affects our snap judgements. The solution here is to bring time on our side and to get exposed to as many similar situations as possible, because constant exposure can reduce the level of panic under stress and lets our brain make better snap judgements.

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.