The Psychology Behind Blink

The central theme in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is called thin-slicing, the snap judgments we make. Thin-slicing judgments occur in our adaptive unconscious, which contains mental tricks that operate without our awareness of them. This shouldn’t be confused with Freud’s views of unconscious, which was where thoughts about primary instincts that, if surfaced, would cause mass panic. So the adaptive unconscious is our second method of decision making (the first being conscious processing) and operates on a extremely limited time scale. The book is titled Blink because thin-slicing lasts 2 seconds long at most.blink[1]

Thin-slicing probably evolved in order to make quick decisions when humans were in a period of history were knowledge was scarce. As this is the case, thin-slicing only occurs in instinctual matter. You cannot use thin-slicing for decided where to go on your next family vacation. Considering destinations, pricing, attractions, and other reasons for vacationing require conscious processing. The adaptive unconscious is not interested in these dilemmas. Consider meeting someone for the first time. Your first impression will be influenced by your adaptive unconscious, because you don’t have enough data of the person in order to decide whether or not you will make nice. So it comes to a snap judgment for you.

Although judgments are rendered quickly, this is not to say that the judgments cannot be trusted. Blink’s example of thin-slicing was to show students a picture of a teacher and ask for their first impression, the video itself being two seconds long, just enough for the adaptive unconscious. Then the researchers asked for reviews of the same teacher to kids who had been in the class for the entire semester. The results were considered to be quite correlated, and a deeper analysis of the study can be found here.

Another example of snap-judgments was the experiment done by the University of Iowa. They created a gambling game with two decks of red cards and two decks a blue cards. Each card awards a sum of money or costs a sum, with the goal being to reached a fixed amount. Choosing one card at a time from any deck, the player’s task was to figure out through trial and error that the only way to win was to pick cards from the blue deck. The red deck, unbeknownst to the participants, was filled with either great gains or devastating losses. Given the results of the experiment, there’s evidence to conclude that our adaptive unconscious reached the answer to the game a full 70 cards before our conscious processing figures it out. A excerpt of the passages detailing the experiment can be found here.Malcolm-Gladwell[1]

Gladwell makes clear that  unconscious processing cannot replace conscious processing, as thinking and rationality are our best tools against situations that harbor complexity. Gladwell posits this is not true across the board. “And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover… The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Whether or not thin-slicing and rationality can be called inferior or superior to each other doesn’t bare much weight on the existence of either system. The nuance is one worth learning, and the book was a pleasure to read.

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