In the #1 national bestseller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the way we think. Specifically, he explains the workings of the unconscious mind in making snap judgments and decisions. He proves that more information is not always a good thing, and some of the best decisions come from gut instinct. In the first chapter, Malcolm introduces the idea of thin-slicing, our unconscious ability to determine what is important in a very short period of time. In more basic terms, thin-slicing is our gut instinct. The more you train your brain, the more accurate the thin-slicing will be. We frequently make decisions in the blink of an eye without even noticing. Gladwell talks about an interesting experiment by John Gottman, who is well known for his work on marital relationships. In the study, Gottman had couples discuss a minor issue in their marriage together for about fifteen minutes. He videotaped both members and reviewed their facial expressions, tone of voice, and overall attitude. Gottman created a different code for each type of expression or feeling, such as contempt, jealousy, or defensiveness. With ninety-five percent accuracy,
Gottman can predict which couples will still be married in fifteen years. Even non-experts could predict the divorce rate with eighty percent accuracy if they were given a list of behaviors for which to look. It is quite remarkable that we have this unknown talent and, with a little practice, can improve our judgment in certain situations. Our ability to thin-slice can be corrupted by prejudices and stereotypes, though. In a study done by Harvard University, researchers led participants through a series of Implicit Association Tests.
These tests are meant to prove that we make associations between things much more quickly if they are previously connected in our minds. The most common IAT involves the connection between males and career and females and family. Participants are given a word from one of the categories and must sort it in the correct place as quickly as possible. For example, if male and career are on the left and female and family on the right, they would sort the word marriage on the right. Participants could make this connection with ease. However, it took the participants about three-hundred milliseconds longer to sort the words when male and family were on the left and female and career on the right. Even though we do not consciously create these prejudices, our unconscious mind does. I went online and took the test myself, thinking that I would be educated enough to beat it.
Of course, I was unsuccessful, and the data revealed that I moderately associate males with career and females with family. The results are even more frightening in the IAT that shows the association between African-Americans and evil and Europeans and good. Interestingly, when making a split-second decision, we are more likely to be swayed one way or another by our prejudices and stereotypes, regardless of whether we support them or not. Thin-slicing is very effective in making medical decisions. Many doctors experience what is called “analysis paralysis,” information overload that causes them to misjudge a situation and misdiagnose patients. Gladwell claims that better judgments can be made with simpler information. Excess information can clog their thinking and is usually irrelevant to the diagnosis anyway. Rarely does more information actually make a doctor’s judgment more accurate. In certain situations, thin-slicing can have disastrous effects.
One of the most extreme cases of thin-slicing gone wrong is the shooting of Amadou Diallo by four police officers. Diallo, a young African-American man, was standing on the stoop of his apartment building when the police officers drove by. They were concerned about what he might be doing, so they called out to him. Diallo ran inside, probably out of fright, and two of the policemen chased him. He tried to grab the door knob while turning sideways, reaching into his pocket for something that the police officers could not see. They later claimed that they thought it was a gun. As he began to slide the object out of his pocket, one of the police officers shot at him. Over twenty-five shots were fired at Diallo. After he fell down, the officers went to grab his gun and were distraught when they realized he did not have one. Instead he was holding a black wallet; Diallo thought they were trying to rob him, which is pretty common in his rough neighborhood. The officers assumed that he was dangerous merely on the basis of his race, which can explain why many African Americans are wrongly accused of crimes. Law enforcement officers may not be intentionally trying to use stereotypes, but their unconscious mind uses them to make quick, life-or-death decisions. Gladwell brings up the effect of people’s appearance on our decision-making.
His prime example is Warren Harding, a tall, handsome man that was elected President of the United States. Harry Daugherty encouraged Harding, a former senator, to run for office. Harding was not too intelligent and definitely unsuited for the job. However, people perceived him to be a great authority figure because of his looks. The idea of appearance affecting judgment is also mentioned in Cialdini’s book under the liking theory of persuasion. People are more likely to buy something from a physically attractive person. Attractive candidates in the Canadian federal elections received two and a half times more votes than unattractive ones. Voters claimed that appearance had no influence on their votes.
This is true to a certain extent. Their conscious minds were not voting based on appearance, but their unconscious mind was leading them towards the more attractive candidate. Another interesting connection to Cialdini’s book is the relationship between height and power. Cialdini explains that you rarely see CEO’s that are short. People unconsciously perceive taller people to be better authority figures. Thus, they usually rise up the food chain faster. In the experiment with the Cambridge visitor at another university, they told each classroom a different occupation for the visitor. Then, they asked them to estimate his height.
The students who thought he was a professor estimated that he was two and a half inches taller than those who thought he was just a student. Gladwell brilliantly explains thin-slicing and our ability to make decisions or judgments without even thinking. He provides both advantages and disadvantages of thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is actually very useful in certain situations, such as medical diagnosis, speed dating, advertising, sales, music, and even marital relationships. It can be a problem when prejudices and stereotypes corrupt our ability to judge. Even though we might not support or believe these stereotypes, our unconscious has a mind of its own. Literally.
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