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A Quick Look at ‘Blink’

August 27, 2012

I just finished Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink, based on recommendations from Brian Frank and BVD.  Blink is a short, interesting read that looks at the unconscious decisions that people make in the blink of an eye.  Gladwell shows that these decisions that are often chalked up to “gut feelings” or “instinct” can be studied and in many cases improved through training.  On the other hand, Gladwell also shows that there are times when our unconscious, snap decisions can be more accurate than our conscious, deliberate decisions.

One of Gladwell’s main claims in Blink is that when we make snap judgements our unconscious throws out all but the most essential information and makes a decision based on just the essentials.  This is why our snap judgements can sometimes be more accurate than our conscious decisions – our conscious can experience information overload.  Gladwell gives several examples, from hospital diagnoses to orchestra auditions, in which less information leads to more accurate decisions.

Some things I found interesting and want to read more about:

  • John Bargh has done a lot of work priming people’s unconscious to cause them to act differently.  In one study, students were asked to spend five minutes thinking either about being a college professor or about soccer hooligans.  After those five minutes students were asked to answer 42 questions from the Trivial Pursuit board game.  The students who thought about being professors answered 55.6% of the questions correctly compared to 42.6% for students who thought about hooligans.  This reminds me of an article in Science (I think) a few years ago in which students who periodically wrote self affirming reflections in physics class outperformed their peers by an entire letter grade.
  • Norman Maier did a study in which participants were put in a room with two ropes hanging from the ceiling and asked to come up with different ways of tying the ropes together.  The ropes were far enough apart that no one could stand in the middle and grasp each rope.  Most people devised three different methods of tying the ropes but very few people thought to swing one of the ropes over towards the other rope which would allow both ropes to be grasped simultaneously.  Once stumped, Maier let the participants sit and think while he casually walked across the room “accidently” brushing one of the ropes and setting it swinging.  Shortly after seeing this, most participants came up with the swinging solution.  When asked how they arrived at this solution participants reported “It just dawned on me” or “I just realized…” etc.  Maier’s conclusion is that his hint of brushing the rope was so subtle that it registered only on the unconscious level and thus was not recognized as a hint during the explanations.  I’m not sure what to do with this but I find these sorts of sudden insights very interesting.
  • A. Greenwald, M. Banaji, and B. Nosek designed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to test for unconscious associations between pairs of ideas.  The idea being that we make connections between ideas that are already related in our minds more quickly that we make connections between unrelated or more loosely related ideas.  In the book, Gladwell gives the example of being asked to place a list of words in one of two categories “Male or Career” or “Female or Family”.  People who unconsciously associated careers more with men than with women will complete this task slightly faster than if they are given a list of words to place in the category “Men or Family” or “Female or Career”.  You can try some IAT yourself at www.implicit.harvard.edu.  I took the Gender-Science IAT and found that I have a slight association between men and science.  This is the only science-related IAT I could find at a glance but I would like to see an IAT looking at attitudes and epistemology towards science.
  • Jonathan Schooler gave people a page of “insight puzzles” (i.e. puzzles that require a sudden insight as opposed to a sequence of logical moves) and compared the performance of people who were asked to write down their thoughts to people who were simply asked to give the answers.  Schooler found that people who were asked to write down their thoughts solved 30% fewer insight puzzles.  While asking someone to explain their reasoning on a logic puzzle can be helpful, this same practice can be counter-productive on an insight puzzle.  Schooler claims that being reflective and writing out your thoughts can cause you to lose your “flow” and interfere with your mind’s ability to jump to new insights.  I tend to think of the problems given to students in physics classes as being logical problems rather than insight problems but I suppose the classification depends on the level of readily available background knowledge.  I imagine something that is a logical puzzle for one person could be an insight puzzle for another so I should be mindful of what sorts of tasks aid or impair sudden insights.
  • In Chapter 6, Gladwell talks about how experts’ (record executives, professional food critics, etc.) snap judgements can differ from the snap judgements of novices.  At multiple points in the chapter Gladwell talks about the experts having the vocabulary necessary to process and comprehend their first impressions.  Near the end of the chapter, while talking about a musician named Kenna who was loved by many music “experts” but never embraced by the wider public, Gladwell says, “The people who had a way to structure their first impressions, the vocabulary to capture them, and the experience to understand them, loved Kenna…”  I find the idea of language being a tool in helping us to organize and understand our experiences very interesting.
  • Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen created a taxonomy of facial expressions based on a systematic study of what happens when you contract different facial muscles in different combinations.  This taxonomy resulted in the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) which Ekman and others have used to analyze brief unconscious “micro-expressions” (the kind of thing you see on the tv show Lie to Me).  In the course of this research Ekman and Friesen found that not only can your emotions influence your facial expressions but it can go the other way as well.  They found that certain facial actions can affect your emotions and various physiological characteristics such as heart rate and body temperature.  A team of German psychologists took this a step further and had volunteers watch cartoons while either holding a pen between their lips (so that they were unable to smile) or holding a pen between their teeth (so that they were automatically smiling).  The group holding the pen between their teeth found the cartoons much funnier.  This seems closely related to embodied cognition in which a person’s gestures are thought to directly influence his or her cognition.
  • Gladwell describes some studies looking at a common inability of people with autism to interpret facial expressions.  In one study, people with and without autism were shown the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf while cameras tracked the participants eye movements.  When a character in the film points at a painting on the wall, most participants with autism do not follow the pointing to locate the painting on the wall.  When describing this, Gladwell writes that, “interpreting a pointing gesture requires, if you think about it, that you instantaneously inhabit the mind of the person doing the pointing.”  I hadn’t really thought about how I am able to interpret other people’s pointing gestures, and it’s not obvious to me that Gladwell’s statement is true but I’m enjoying thinking about Gladwell’s claim.

The Notes section of the book references specific journal articles for many of the studies Gladwell describes so hopefully I’ll get a change to look into some of these topics in more depth.

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