Blink: The power of thinking without thinking
304 pages; Average reading time 4 hours 19 min
This bookbhook summary will take not more than 11 minutes
This bookbhook summary has been handcrafted by Ruchi Nagpal, exclusively for India’s favourite book summary app-bookbhook. Ruchi is a research scientist and believes books are the wings that help you reach the unknown.
Blink, as a book, sets out to complete three tasks. The first task is to prove that snap decisions can be as rewarding as the decisions made carefully and intentionally. The second task is to explore why sometimes we cannot see or rationalise something very obvious to others. The third task is to persuade ourselves that those quick decisions and first impressions can be learned and forced upon.
The first instinct
Blink is a book about our very first impressions; precisely those first two seconds that decide our next course of action. The incidence of art forgery at J. Paul Getty Museum in California is one such example of how those initial moments finally lead us to making correct decisions. After 14 months of thorough scientific investigation, the museum curators gave nod to the purchase of an ancient marble statue known as Kouros. However, the initial reaction of visiting art historians betrayed its authenticity. Be it Italian art historian Federico Zeri, Greek expert Evelyn Harrison, or Thomas Hoving of Metropolitan Museum-they all felt that something was just not right about the statue. The case was finally resolved after a series of in-depth investigation. The fake letters, subtle errors in sculpture styling, and the proof of artificial aging of dolomite marble statue, all revealed the truth in the end. The sculpture was a fake.
The adaptive unconscious
An experiment by Iowa University scientists on gamblers playing a simple card game revealed much about the working of our brain. By measuring the sweat glands in the palms of the hands, the stress response was recorded till a player figured out the game. The gamblers started showing stress responses to the red decks, the wrong ones, by the tenth card but it took another 40 cards for them to realize that there was something fishy about the red decks. They then started to opt for the correct blue decks gradually but it took 80 more cards to establish a definite no-no about picking cards from the wrong red decks. This is called as conscious brain strategy, which works slowly gathering information bit by bit to reach a logical reasoning. The second brain strategy which was opted for by the art historians is ‘fast and frugal’ according to psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in which the brain signals ‘positive or negative’ to something after doing instant random calculations. The art historians knew that something was wrong but could not point that out instantly. This strategy of the brain where it jumps to quick conclusions is called the adaptive unconscious. Our brain is capable of using both conscious as well as unconscious modes according to the situation.
Math predicts your marriage stability
John Gottman, a psychologist in the University of Washington has developed a coding system named SPAFF to assign any thinkable emotion expressed or experienced by a person. He recorded the conversation of more than 3,000 married couples in his laboratory to analyse their married life. He assigns a SPAFF code for every second of a couple’s conversation. This coupled with the measurement of stress responses like increase in heart beat or restlessness is fed into complex mathematical equation to predict the marital status. On analysing an hour-long conversation, he can successfully predict whether the couple will stick together in future or not with 95% accuracy. According to Gottman, there are four crucial behaviours among couples that can predict their destiny. These are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Of these, contempt is the main sign of trouble in a marriage. If you contempt or disapprove your spouse, you are bound to leave them at one point in time. The technique used by Gottman is actually about observing and analysing every second in minute detail ,almost like cutting really thin slices and analysing them.
How thin do you want your pizza slice?
The concept of thin slicing is further understood with our choice of doctors. We tend to go to the doctor who is willing to listen to us and who treats us with respect. The arrogant doctor who doesn’t pay attention to patients’ queries is most likely to get sued by the patient in case of any medical malpractice. This is proved by an experiment done by medical researcher Wendy Levison. She recorded the conversation of a group of surgeons and their patients. By analysing these conversations, she could predict which of the surgeons got sued and which of them didn’t. Another psychologist, Nalini Ambady, further extended the experiment by selecting 10-second clips of that conversation. Doing thin slicing with Gottman-style coding, she rated the doctor’s tone as warm, hostile, dominant, or anxious and came to the same conclusions.
Thin slicing is not a gifted quality. We do it constantly without knowing. In sports such as basketball, we term it as ‘court sense’; in military terms, it is called coup d’oeil; bird watchers term it as knowing a ‘bird’s giss’. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer recollects his first meeting with the then unknown Tom Hanks for the movie ‘Splash’ where he instantly got a liking for Tom. Later, they did many successful movies such as ‘Apollo 13’ together.
Priming an ‘instant’ decision
The irony of deciding instantly is that we are not able to justify those decisions later, even to ourselves. The evidence is somehow locked in our unconscious. It happened with Vic Braden, one of the world’s top tennis coaches. He realised that he was able to predict double faults committed by players the moment their racket would make a contact with the ball. However, it drove him crazy because he was not able to analyse how he knew it. George Soros said that his father used to alter his decisions on the stock market when his back started to hurt. The spasm was the early warning sign of his decision making. What then happens in our minds which directs instant decision-making?
Numerous priming experiments have been done to know what goes on behind the locked door of our unconscious. ‘To prime’ means to create favourable conditions for one’s brain to behave in a particular manner. In one experiment, two groups were given different jumbled-sentence tests in order to prime their brain with either politeness or aggression. After completing the test, they were supposed to give it back to the instructor sitting in another room. The group which was primed with words of respect never interrupted the instructor who was deliberately pretending to be busy. And the group which was primed with words of aggression interrupted eventually after five minutes. This gives an interesting finding that our brain can be primed to behave according to what is happening around it.
Aronson and Steele did a similar experiment with a group of black students who performed very poorly after they were reminded of their race in a questionnaire before the examination. This suggests that in reality our independent will is a kind of illusion. How we behave in a situation is largely dependent on external influences.
Vic Braden’s experience with many professional athletes also indicates our inability to decipher ‘why’, when it comes to explaining our instant actions. According to his research, not a single player gives a consistent answer about what and how exactly he does on the court. He has studied taped matches of Andre Agassi in detail and confirms our inability to tell how we act at a given moment. The speed dating exercise also suggests that people do not get attracted to the opposite gender having qualities that they initially stated.
Appearances are always deceptive
Warren Harding, the 29th American President, is considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history. He served only two years before dying unexpectedly of cerebral haemorrhage in 1923. According to journalist Mark Sullivan, Ohio attorney lawyer Harry Daugherty was instrumental in convincing him to run for presidential candidature. Daugherty had instantly formed the impression of Harding being everything that people look for in a president: distinguished looking, handsome, masculine, intelligent, with a magnificent voice, and exuding friendliness and confidence. After his death, many scandals were exposed which tarnished his image. This is an example of the dark side of quick reasoning that sometimes leads to erroneous judgements. We humans have powerful or strong associations with appearances – size, shape, colour, or gender – that lead us to prejudge other human beings. The troubling thing is that our unconscious attitudes do not reflect our self-proclaimed conscious values. So is it very difficult to change our pre-existing notions and values?
I have judged you
Goulomb, a successful sales director of Nissan car dealers in New Jersey has mastered the art of not judging his customers based on their appearances or his first impressions. He believes only in taking care of the customer. It is very difficult as a salesperson to not let your impressions judge the customer and behave accordingly. A social experiment done in 1990s in Chicago showed how colour or gender can affect the price quoted by a salesman to the customer. The experiment consisted of 38 people: 18 white men, 7 white women, 8 black women, and 5 black men. All were instructed to go to car dealerships in Chicago and present a similar story. They were dressed up in the same manner and were instructed to bargain in same way. The outcome was astonishing. Among the group, black men fared very low in comparison to others. The white men were able to bargain heavily followed by white women, black women, and black men. The unconscious mind of the salesmen was biased against women and black people and quoted very high price. This kind of approach in sales can drive away many potential buyers.
Paul van Riper retired from the Marine after a long and eminent career. He was a strict, aggressive, and no-nonsense commander to his soldiers in Vietnam. In 2000, he was approached by Pentagon officials who were planning a hypothetical war game named Millennium Challenge ’02. The JFCOM (the joint forces command) is the organisation of Pentagon which experiments with several new military strategies to go to battle for the U.S. Riper’s role was to play a rogue anti-American commander of the Red Team who was threatening to engulf the entire Persian Gulf in war. The military analysts of Pentagon representing the U.S. and its allies were the Blue Team. The Blue Team was equipped with all the scientific databases and the methodologies to systematically monitor the activities of the enemy while the Red Team relied on the instant decisions of Riper. The Blue Team suffered a disastrous failure in the first level as it could not anticipate the spontaneous attack of the Red Team. The Blue Team concentrated so much on the computational mechanics and the processes of the war that they never approached it wholly. The Red Team, on the other hand, used unconventional means to rip through the Blue Team. An overload of information sometimes makes it difficult to take a quick decision, which was case with the Blue Team. The important lesson to be learnt from this story is that premeditated thinking should be balanced by the intuitive thinking at the time of crisis. We cannot rely solely on the pre-calculated strategies in an emergency.
Less is more
When we thin-slice any situation or make snap judgements, we do it by editing in our minds. That is why our mind gets confused if loaded with many choices. This happened with the experiment done by Sheena Iyengar at a grocery store. While 32% of customers bought jams from the booth having six types of jam, only 3% of customers bought jams from the other booth having far more varieties of jam. We are forced to consider more when given more choices and our unconscious gets confused to take instant decisions. Therefore, sometimes less information is more beneficial than more.
(Sheena Iyengar’s excellent book The Art of Choosing is available as a bookbhook summary. Do check it out)
Mystery of instant judgements
The musical journey of Ethiopian rock star Kenna depicts how sometimes we are not able to achieve fame even after getting a good start. Although Kenna’s music was appreciated and loved by the record company executives, music club enthusiasts and people in the music industry, it didn’t pass the reality test by mass audience of music buyers. Whenever music research firms collected the ratings of his songs on web or by phone or by sending song samples CDs, the response was so poor that his album release could not materialise. The positive impressions of music executives were not accepted by the general public. However, is this the right way to decide the fate of a person’s ability or a new product in the market? We have to explore more to understand the mystery of our instant judgements.
New Coke? No thanks
The classic failure of new Coke can give us some insights. In 1980s, the popularity of Coke was dipping due to rise of Pepsi. The so-called ‘Pepsi Challenge’ showed that people favoured Pepsi instead of Coke in blind taste tests. It forced the think tank of Coke to change the age-old favour of Coke to a much sweeter one. The final version of new Coke outscored Pepsi in all market research challenges and blind taste tests. It convinced the executives to launch new Coke across U.S. There was no doubt that new Coke would be huge success, as all data indicated people loved its taste. But new Coke failed.
There were protests from the loyal consumers of old Coke. The company had to bring back the classic Coke. The Coke that is selling today is the same classic Coke, and is still the number one soft drink in the world. This example shows how wrong it is to extrapolate the likings of a selected group to broader one. This is what happened to Kenna. The market testers relied only on the research data assuming that people will thin slice a new song in a couple of seconds. They forgot to inspect the fact that Kenna was a hit among the live audience in the musical club scenario or local concerts.
The consumer & the expert
The successful product development story of ‘Aeron’ brand comfort chair by Herman Miller Furniture Company explains that new and different innovative ideas tend to get thumbs down in market research. The new concepts take time to register and their final outcome can be very opposite to the initial reaction. Two of the most successful sitcoms in American television history – All in the family and The Mary Tyler Moore show – were initially rejected by the selected audience group as they were different from the regular shows. Had Kenna been given a chance, he might have had a successful career.
After studying the profession of sensory experts who taste food for a living, I realised that experts in any field are able to interpret their first impressions more correctly than the common people. Their rigorous training and experience over the years gives them a better understanding of their unconscious locked door. The consumer, unfortunately, has a superficial knowledge of the subject and therefore his reactions can sometimes point in the wrong direction initially.
Kenna did manage to release an album called ‘New Sacred Cow’ with Columbia Records after a while. Despite not having achieved immense popularity, Kenna’s own small group of fans are there to cheer for him and keep him going.
Mind reading and wrong decisions
The theory of mind reading can explain the way we behave with others, depending on their facial expressions, in our daily life. It applies to the instant judgements we make. However, why do we sometimes fail to read the mind correctly? The unfortunate shooting of black American Amadou Diallo in the neighbourhood of South Bronx showed how a series of wrong and crucial judgements made by the four policemen on duty that night, claimed Diallo’s life. They suspected him to be a criminal when he was just terrified seeing the police approaching him. The whole episode led to 41 gun shots in about two and a half seconds. Why did the police fail to read Diallo’s mind? Why did they wrongly deduce his actions to be of a criminal running from the police? Scientists have proven that our mind reading ability goes down under pressure, when our heart beat rises significantly, and our motor coordination starts deteriorating.
Taxonomy of facial expressions
The psychology and science of mind reading has been studied in detail by two brilliant scientists: Silvan Tomkins, the teacher and Paul Ekman, his student. Tomkins had once identified crucial characteristics of two tribal groups on the basis of their facial expressions. This inspired Ekman and his colleague Friesen to create a taxonomy of facial expressions. They identified every distinct muscular movement of the face calling it an action unit (AU). By studying the effect of particular muscle movements and their combination, they noted the wrinkle pattern of the face. The entire exercise took seven years to identify about 3,000 AUs that were meaningful. The rules for reading and interpreting these facial expressions were documented as Facial Action Coding System or FACS. At present, there are only 500 people around the world who are certified to use this coding in research. Ekman recalls his saying about President Bill Clinton in his early days to have an expression of ‘love-me-Mommy-because-I’m-a-rascal look’. And Clinton did get caught eventually.
Our voluntary expressions are guided and controlled by us, but our involuntary expressions signal our authentic and true feelings. Ekman has confirmed this after studying various cases like the OJ Simpson trial.
Inability to read the mind
According to British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the inability to mind-read is the condition of autism. Autism expert Ami Klin of Yale University studied an autistic patient Peter in detail. Peter is an educated, independent person who is very articulate but lacks intuition about things. It was decided to show him an emotional movie called ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and the researcher followed the direction of Peter’s eyes. It was found that even in emotional scenes, he was not focusing on the actors involved but his attention was captured by a light switch. Since his mind was not able to connect with the emotions of the actors, the particular scene had no special meaning to him. Does this type of mind-blindness happen to common people under stress thereby allowing incorrect rapid decisions?
Removing popular bias
In earlier days, female musicians were not considered for playing as part of an orchestra due to lack of strength, and the attitude or the flexibility required for certain kinds of pieces like trombone or horn. Most of the instruments were seen as very masculine. There is a famous incident of Abbie Conant, the trombone musician, who won the hearts of Munich audition committee, which was not aware of her being a female. The error in the invitation letter addressing her as ‘sir’ and the ‘screen/shield’ between the musician and the committee at the auditions led to this surprise slip. She had a tough time retaining her position in the orchestra in the coming years.
However, over the decades, the classical music industry has started changing rules to overcome the prejudice against women and to bring transparency to the auditions. The identity of the audition giver is now concealed till the final judgement, and steps are taken to reduce the influence of judges among themselves. The outcome is the rise in hiring of women professionals in the orchestra. This gives us a deep understanding of the fact that our first impressions are influenced by the surrounding environment and the general pre-notions. When the judges were listening with their eyes closed, they were focusing only on the music but when they were listening with their eyes, the gender, the personality and the performance of the musician were all adding to their impressions. However, by erecting a shield or a screen, they had controlled the environment in which rapid cognition takes place. We can control our rapid cognition by controlling the environment.
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