For those who believe, as I do, that people behave very much as if they were the adaptive agents of complexity theory, few topics are more fascinating than unconscious cognition. After all, if people do behave this way, they are constantly modeling their social environments, continually taking in information of which they are consciously unaware. As a result, I look forward to any examination of the science explaining how people make and process such information.
This type of unconscious thinking is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. “The adaptive unconscious,” he writes in his introduction, “does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.” Many of the problems people in our society create for themselves, he suggests, arise because we “only trust conscious decision making.” The book explores this facility and “a very specific and consistent set of reasons” responsible when “our powers of rapid cognition go awry…”
The book is at its best when Gladwell is doing exactly that, summarizing a spectrum of the work being done in this field. He writes, for example, about how the Getty Museum purchased a US$10 million Greek marble statue because its experts’ analysis indicated it was authentic. Yet several experienced art historians knew instantly, through rapid cognition, that it was a forgery. His discussion of John Gottman’s work on how a married couple’s communication indicates how successful the marriage will be is also fascinating. Because he’s learned to quickly identify key patterns, Gottman is able to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a couple will remain married 15 years later on the basis of watching a 15 minute conversation. Similarly, Gladwell examines John Bargh’s work on ‘priming’ subjects to have specified attitudes. In one experiment, subjects must complete a test that was sprinkled with words suggesting either polite (‘considerate’, ‘appreciate’) or rude (‘disturb’, ‘intrude’) reactions. They were then placed in a situation where they needed to interrupt the experimenter, who was busy in conversation. In this situation, 82 percent of those primed to be polite never interrupted.
In addition, the book examines speed-dating (where choices reflected unconscious attitudes rather than stated desires), the affect that Warren Harding’s “tall, dark and handsome” looks had on his political career (he became President even though, aside from his looks, he was thoroughly mediocre), or the affect of not being able to see an audition candidate on the choice of new members for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra (a woman who was rejected when those choosing could see her was selected when they could not). As long as Gladwell is writing about this sort of unconscious thought, the book is a delight – intelligent, well-written, insightful. Unfortunately, some of the situations he chooses to explore demonstrate dynamics that transcend unconscious cognition, and there Gladwell falls prey to a danger he himself identifies.
The odd thing was that this was my intuitive reaction to the book. The more I read Blink, the more I began to feel something was wrong. For instance, in discussing Gottman’s work, he writes that “all marriages have a distinctive pattern, a kind of marital DNA, that surfaces in any kind of meaningful interaction.” The comparison with DNA struck me as odd. Surely, those patterns are much closer to the attractors of complexity theory than to DNA. Why had he chosen what for me was obviously the wrong metaphor?
Then, in Chapter Four, he writes about the Millennium Challenge of 2002, in which the Pentagon wanted to test its new ideas about how to run a war. To do so, they asked retired Marine officer Paul Van Riper to play the role of a rogue dictator. Pentagon brass wanted to show that their high-tech arsenal, with its satellites, sensors, and super-computers would give them an enormous advantage in battle. In opposition to this rational, analytical approach, Van Riper relied on his instincts to attack the Pentagon’s forces at their most vulnerable. After the first day of the exercise, he had neutralized the Pentagon’s advantages. The moral, Gladwell explains, is that strategy and analysis are critical before the shooting starts. But once it does, effective action depends on moving quickly to respond to what others are doing. The Pentagon’s detailed expectations of how its opponent should respond and over analysis only make effective response difficult and time consuming. Van Riper’s reliance on rapid cognition once the shooting started was far superior to the Pentagon’s analysis paralysis.
As I read through this chapter, it seemed to me that Gladwell had somehow missed the point. While the Pentagon obviously was approaching this exercise much too rationally, the problem was a great deal more than reluctance to trust intuitive faculties. The real problem, I recognized, was the cultural context in which the Pentagon brass operated. Yet Gladwell never examines that issue. My discomfort was amplified about halfway through this chapter, when he describes Van Riper’s library, “lined with rows upon rows of works on complexity theory and military strategy.” The books on military strategy are self-explanatory. But why books on complexity theory? I believe that complexity theory explains why rapid cognition is so important. Yet Gladwell seems unconcerned. Did he lack intellectual curiosity? Did bringing complexity into the story intimidate him? I couldn’t tell. But it made me uncomfortable.
Then, as I was finishing Chapter Five, a friend called on the phone. So I had a chance to talk about my discomfort. Almost directly after hanging up, I read this passage:
“Whenever we have something that we are good at – something we care about – that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions.
This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren’t grounded in real understanding” (p. 184).
And there I had it. My experience and passion for the social implications of complexity theory had changed my experience of the stories Gladwell was telling. Without them, he wasn’t invariably wrong. But he did seem, to use his own word, shallow.
As I read Chapter Six, I tested this perception. In it, Gladwell tells the story of a police shoot out in which an African-American was needlessly killed because the officers based their actions on preconceived notions that were subtly wrong. “The officers,” Gladwell explains, “made a series of critical misjudg- ments, beginning with the assumption that a man getting a breath of fresh air outside his own home was a potential criminal.” While this is true, once again, he ignores the cultural context. The underlying problem is not so much the failure to access intuition in a high fear situation, as the context of a police culture and the way that police culture shapes the perception of people in it. Had Gladwell been grounded in complexity theory, he would have been much less likely to make this mistake.
In the end, reading Blink was worth the time and effort it cost me. It is, above all, a wonderful read, even if it is the intellectual equivalent of a fluffy pastry, rather than a prime rib. Gladwell is a first-class journalist (he’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, which may explain the book’s weaknesses as much as it’s strengths). Moreover, he gathers a fascinating sample of the growing research into the processes by which our unconscious minds troll our environment for much more information than we can ever expect to register consciously. And if I was disappointed that Gladwell couldn’t tie his insights to those of complexity theory, well, I did have the odd, self-referential experience of intuiting one of the central perceptions of a book about unconscious thinking. A decadent pleasure, perhaps, but a pleasure none the less.