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Monday, September 01, 2008


I am reading a remarkable book right now, given me by my clever and thoughtful pupil Supra, and I thought I should write up a few paragraphs about it. It’s called blink (by Malcolm Gladwell, 2005, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., US $15.99). Its thesis, racily written and backed up by a great agglomeration of research findings, as such American books usually are, is that ‘thin-slicing’ of experience matters far more in human decision making than we know or believe – whether we are selling cars, or sizing up battlefield situations, or figuring out which of our patients are most likely to have a heart attack soon, or differentiating between fake and genuine works of art, our subconscious minds, working behind a ‘locked door’, make decisions in the blink of an eye, on the basis of extremely quick first-impressions, and those are the decisions which we often try to rationalize afterwards with all kinds of carefully-sifted evidence and closely-reasoned argument.
The author insists that it is by and large a good thing that most of us can do this ‘thin-slicing’, and do it fairly well: otherwise, in the swift hurly-burly of life, when a thousand quick decisions have to be taken and there’s no time to do ‘proper’ research and detailed analysis of pros and cons (such as slamming the brakes a few seconds before there is a traffic pileup ahead of you because ‘something’ warned you things were about to go wrong), we simply wouldn’t have survived. If some of us want to call this ‘intuition’, the author only wants us not to think that we are talking hocus-pocus about ‘supernatural’ powers: a well-developed intuition is only an ability to make very prompt judgments on the basis of long-accumulated, well-digested experience which is not always available to the conscious mind for instant processing. I am reminded of having read how hunters and commandos claim to have acquired a keenly-honed intuition on the basis of long and often costly experience; and Asimov wrote long ago that while great scientific ideas come far more often to the trained mind than to the layman, the trained scientist owes far more to sudden flashes of intuition than is commonly supposed. The author also acknowledges that some people have far keener intuitions than others: that is one reason they excel in their chosen fields of work (sharp stockbrokers, like brilliant generals, often find it very hard to explain in step-by-step logical terms what exactly made them decide on doing the things that brought them glory, victory or a big fortune).
I myself endorse the thesis to a great extent: as a private tutor who has to depend on a very flighty group of ‘customers’ who are very unsure of what they want from me, I have always known that whether I can keep my family in gravy depends a very great deal on what sort of first impression I make on new batches every year. Which is why, after so many years, I still worry quite a bit about ‘getting it just right from the first word to the last’ in the first class. Of course there are always pupils who later claim that I gradually ‘grew on them’ as the classes progressed, but I know that if I have to retain ninety percent of the group that turned up on the first day, I cannot afford even tiny mistakes in giving the kind of first impression I want to give – with most people (even those who follow the herd) the first impression can often be the last! It might all seem like spontaneous fun on the receiving end, but believe me, an enormous amount of cool and hardheaded planning, self-correcting, self-monitoring and practice has gone into shaping the ‘final product’.
What is most alarming about the author’s thesis is that we often can, and do, go hopelessly wrong in making such snap judgments, too, and it leads to untold woe and injustice. That happens because, alas, our unconscious minds are crammed with all sorts of prejudices and fixed ideas which are simply not true nor fair. Thus it seems to be a fact that tall men seem to have an unbeatable advantage when it comes to the selection of CEOs of large business corporations: no matter how silly or unbelievable or just plain wrong it sounds, a short man (or a woman!), however sharp and highly qualified, has the whole world’s deeply-ingrained bias against him/her (a leader is expected to have a domineering physical presence, and height is supposed to facilitate that greatly). This is apparently a statistical fact – so, in case you are thinking of Alexander or Napoleon or Vidyasagar or Sachin Tendulkar, remind yourself that these are truly exceptional people: how many such have you personally encountered? We are talking about the average MBA-type here (tall men with MBAs can be duds, of course: hence so many bad CEOs who drag their bottom lines down!) Likewise, the fact that a musician, first selected as brilliant when only heard by a great Philharmonic Orchestra, was rejected as soon as they saw that it was a woman, or the fact that far more black men get convicted with all kinds of crime than white men do in the US, despite the latter having the same weight of evidence against them, is due to the very unfortunate reality that typical judges and juries are still very heavily biased against women and blacks (woe betide the short and black woman!). And this sad reality is not altered by the fact that most of those judges and juries might be consciously very nice people, and very strongly not just profess but believe in the most liberal, egalitarian social values – we are talking subconscious minds here.
Gladwell, therefore, neither praises high-speed intuitive decision-making as the right thing to do in all situations, nor does he lament that its problems cannot be handled and cured, or at least ameliorated. Our biases against black men or women, for instance, which slow down our performances in all Implicit Association Tests (he says go to www.implicit.harvard.edu and take a test for yourself) are greatly weakened if we are asked to look at pictures of famous and great blacks or women for a while before sitting for the tests – ergo, it is highly recommended that social arrangements be gradually so re-organised that people in important decision-making positions first get a great deal of close first-hand exposure to nice and clever blacks and women and black women, so that those unconscious biases slowly fade. And since the bosses of the Munich Philharmonic chose both rightly and fairly when a screen prevented them from seeing that the musician was female, it is highly recommended that judges and juries do not get to see the accused, lest their unconscious biases get a chance to wreak havoc with sane judgments! It is this kind of practical solutions that appeal greatly to Gladwell – he is, after all, an American. Think how much harder it would be to bring about such social changes in a country like India, where our biases are not only explicit (every would-be bride who wants a good match had better be fair-complexioned), but most of us are still far from feeling guilty about them!
And finally, Gladwell suggests (with a doff of the hat at Freud) that all the mass of extant research seems to indicate that, contrary to popular wisdom, the big decisions – which require processing a great number of variables and juggling a great many facts – are best left to the subconscious, while the minor decisions in life (do I want a chocolate sundae right now?) can be dealt with in the best traditions of slow and careful analytical thinking. He tells people that the knowledge provided by this book should make us more aware that we could very often be wrong (shades of Russell!), and that should make us more forgiving towards those who cannot consciously help being wrong (that would have warmed Jesus’ heart). He also warns that having too much information at one’s fingertips can actually be disastrous instead of a great help to wise decision making, by making us both complacent and confused: that, says Gladwell, is precisely why the vast US military/intelligence apparatus, with all their superdooper technology and mathematical models, got their prognostication of the ongoing war in Iraq so horribly wrong!
Try the book. For some people, especially those still under 30, it could be a life-changing experience.


Supra said...

The book is insightful and makes you think about thinking. Since childhood I’ve believed that intuition and emotions are the result of our minds doing subconscious analysis. The book does a good job of describing the benefits and perils of people’s split decisions and reactions. This book has partially broken my longstanding philosophy of thinking long and hard before a decision is to be made. In Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell points out that the best decisions are made through the power of our sub-conscious minds. Unconscious knowledge is not the proverbial light bulb, he observes, but rather a flickering candle. The author discusses his observations from topics as varied as speed dating, military battles, heart attack response analysis, car sales and celebrity singers.

The power of "Thin Slicing", making swift judgments, is explained by the author in pointing out that we make decisions in the sub-conscious level, and to over-analyze things makes us less efficient. Popularly known as "gut instinct," the power comprises an innate skill possessed by everybody that should be used, rather than delving into a situation and making a decision only after long deliberation. Although the book should have focused on "blink", the author touches on various topics that don't seem related. One of his observations concerns leaders' micromanaging. He argues that leaders who have their people report constantly encourage them to waste time preparing for better presentations to the superior, rather than focusing on delivering better output.
Technically, the book is a mixture of different concepts and theories. In some chapters, he tells of the brilliance of relying on blink while in other chapters he tells us how deadly this could be. Blink, while interesting and full of practical observations, lacks some credibility for being based on contrasting results from mathematical and chemical experiments and tests. He shows examples of how this can be done and how it can be blocked by prejudices already in place. Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant - in the blink of an eye - that actually aren't as simple as they seem. Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work - in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others? The author explains that although eyes are the windows to our soul, it’s the facial expressions that are the master key to our internal feelings. Expressions that flit across our faces in micro seconds hold more information than any amount of studies that may analyze that person over days. Here I am reminded of a friend of mine who is an exception to this rule. She was a truly lucky girl considering that no one could mind read her because her face was ‘always’ blank, no matter what myriad emotions she experienced.

In this book Gladwell tells us what we should be doing when we are meeting people, (if their hands are crossed they don’t want us to come near them), how to read facial expressions, (if they yawn or keep looking at other people they are bored).Our facial muscles can give us a clue how to talk to them. If their muscles are tense try to calm them down with a joke or tell them how nice they look.
There is something ironic about the book, because the whole book is dedicated to turning off thinking--the author aims to "think without thinking." Gladwell says that we may be "better off without thinking," but what makes his book so fascinating is that it makes you wonder, speculate, and think. In the end though, Gladwell didn't have a conclusion or any method for improving the way we do this in real life. It came off more as a "sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn't" - and here are some curious stories.
Gladwell's groundbreaking explication of a key aspect of human nature is enlightening, provocative, and great fun to read.

ginger candy said...


Unconscious or subconscious mind often plays a vast role in determining our actions and attitudes towards all and sundry. However, the debate still remains as to whether that is a good thing to do, especially so when it comes to making a decision that could severely impact another fellow human-being (For example, the choice of making a wrong decision of whether it's fine for me to have another candy is, in all probability, far less disastrous than the wrong choice that the unconscious mind of a judge would make if he is disinclined towards black men). Far more alarming is the fact that Indians tend to rely heavily on their unconscious mind in matters of serious kind- and more often than not, their unconscious mind instigates them to act evilly and foolishly. I have seen many 'modern' youth flinch in contempt when they hear a Muslim name: Mind you, these are the same folks who lionize Shahrukh Khan and Amir khan, and vehemently voice their opinion that the Pakistan cricket team is beaming with talent- What kind of justification, other than a heavily jaundiced subconscious mind, would you ascribe to this kind of discombobulated irony? If we look carefully around, there are too many of these worthless and atrocious prejudices, which are often an upshot of the subconscious mind, which we might find out- "A certain community is thickheaded", "A certain class of people are misers", and so on.

As Gladwell suggests, it would do good if judges are given close exposure to nice and intelligent Blacks, so that their long held beliefs gradually efface out. But my question is- How much of an exposure would it take, for an average Indian, to rub out all sorts of preformed biases against scads of people and community alike? Wouldn't that be too much of an onus to bear, and shall it ensure complete salutary outcome? Wouldn't it be much better if we could simply educate our children to basic good education, so that when they grow up, they are able to judge a person as he is, without taking into account his religion, ethnicity, body colour, and other sorts of silly parameters. Having said that, I already know what a gargantuan task it is to educate our people to the correct standards and morals, but I am afraid that I have no other solution for the blind and blatant judgements that our subconscious minds envisage every day. Very clearly, our unconscious mind relies on the education we get in our upbringing, coupled with the dogma that our parents/teachers/friends infuse into us- and once we reach our mid-thirties, these biases are so heavily ingrained into our brains, that trying to extirpate them is nugatory. While it is true that we shall certainly defer to our unconscious mind while making important decisions in various stages of our life, I only wish that our unconscious minds remain free from worthless and unwanted prejudices, so that we might become educated and modern in the truest sense of the terms.