Wednesday, February 2, 2005

The science of hunches

New book explores why knee-jerk responses are often right

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Knee-jerk reaction has a bad rap. Context is overrated. Everything we need to know was not imparted in kindergarten, during college or at the gnarliest meditation retreat of all time. Rather, in a few breathless seconds we process information and make decisions with more proficiency than anyone gives us credit for. Or so goes the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating, if not entirely convincing new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Like The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s bestselling debut, Blink is about the small stuff and why it’s worth sweating. The Tipping Point showed how tiny environmental changes could explain anything from a fashion trend to a crime wave reversal. Blink is concerned with our instant, unconscious thoughts. The Getty Museum’s acquisition of a rare kouros statue in the early 1980s is held up as the apotheosis. Abetted by stereomicroscopes, geologists concluded the statue was the real deal. Without anything more than a hard stare, art experts the world over knew it was a fraud. The controversy raged on for years until the Getty’s lawyers found its statue was a forgery through flaws in its documentation.

So how can a bunch of art wonks instantly see something trained scientists can’t? This question fascinates Gladwell and it is what Blink is ultimately about. The answer is thin slicing: the unconscious mind’s ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based on only limited patterns of experience. It’s part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the "adaptive unconscious," or the CPU-like part of our brains responsible for quick decisions.

Gladwell is at his best illustrating the myriad of contexts in art, culture, even the military, where thin-slicing rules the day. One memorable example involves Dr. John Gottman, whose "love lab" has been studying married couples’ conversations for nearly two decades. With a mere 15 minutes of videotaped discussion, Gottman can predict whether a couple will be married in 15 years. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent.

In fact, he’s become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he’s found marriages usually hinge on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money and those meddling in-laws.)

Though Gladwell hails the study of the adaptive unconscious as pioneering, one of its discoveries is that thin slicing often rules out innovations because they don’t sync up with familiar patterns of personal experience.

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell mines the culture for all things counterintuitive. He’s explored the disconnect between the illusion of safety offered by SUVs and their tendency to flip over. More recently, he’s contested the notion that plagiarism is always and everywhere a form of intellectual theft. In Blink he writes about an even broader contradiction in his trademark voice that distills complex situations and ideas into a clear conversation.

Gladwell seamlessly unites a ton of seemingly random phenomena under the banner of an idea. However, he leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, if a marriage can be assessed in 15 minutes, what does it mean for husbands and wives interested in staying together? How do we know when to trust our adaptive unconscious rather than making decisions via the more established cerebral scenic route?

At times Blink feels less like an investigation than a subtle form of boosterism. Gladwell is not exactly stumping for rapid cognition as he does detail its downside, but still the tone feels polemical. But because it’s neither straight-up psychology, sociology or phenomenology Blink remains a refreshing read even if deciding whether or not its ideas are "good" is no snap decision.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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