“The results from these experiments are, obviously quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” (Gladwell, 58)
I finally found the time to finish Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m glad I did. It’s an immensely helpful book to read, particularly if you’re the kind of person who has a hard time following their instinct. In essence, Blink shows you where your instincts come from, and it’s not from the sky above. Rather, they come from your subconscious, which operates without your awareness. This is why many times we have “a feeling” that “something’s just not right”, but we fail to give a rational reason for why we feel the way we do. Quite an interesting phenomenon, especially because it appears as though our minds are divided into two parts, that don’t do a good job communicating with one another.
Gladwell tries to show through this book, that sometimes we’re better off following the subconscious, because it is somehow trained to make lightning fast decisions. He doesn’t attempt to give his readers a glimpse of how this process takes place, because the truth is, no one really knows. What he does explain is that it appears that the subconscious has evolved to take into consideration many factors, and come up with an output, which is what gives us a certain feeling.
He also points out, quite justly, that this fast decision making can get us into trouble. Since our conscious (of which we also know very little), makes mistakes all the time, why wouldn’t our subconscious be liable to the same issue?
But let’s turn to the lessons Blink can teach its readers:
1) Snap Judgments Aren’t All that Bad
As I said in the intro, Blink concentrates on defending the judgements that come from our subconscious. Yes, they’re hidden from our awareness, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. Perhaps in our desire to control everything, we have forgotten that some things simply cannot be controlled. But Gladwell reminds us of this fact, and points out just how wonderful snap judgements can actually be.
2) Tests Aren’t Always the Best Indicator of Knowledge
This issue is highly debated in the education system, for good reasons. Many claim that tests (exams, quizzes, and whatever else they might be called) only show the ability of a student to memorize information, which is quite different from knowing. Plus, there’s always the problem of too much pressure on one particular occasion. Many things can go wrong in one day, and so it is unfair to judge a student’s knowledge on his or her performance on one particular occasion. What if s/he was sick, or stressed that day?
Now, Malcolm Gladwell adds one more worry to the mixture (which, to be fair, is not a new one at all). Mainly, that we seem to be quite easily fooled into thinking we’re less smart than we are. For example, research has suggested that simply reminding girls of the fact that they’re girls causes them to perform worse on math tests than boys do. In this case, the general stereotype that girls are worse at math than boys are comes into play, sabotaging the females’ performance.
3) The Subconscious Can Lead Us Astray
But so can our conscious. So where exactly is the problem? Well, the thing about our conscious is that we’re aware of its workings. This means that when it go wrong, we can rewind, analyze the process, and understand where we went wrong. With the subconscious, however, we cannot do that. Because the processes are hidden from us, this means that we can’t correct our thinking. Essentially, we could be making the same mistake over and over again without even realizing.
This is not to say that we should not listen to the subconscious at all. However, we do need to pay particular attention to when it goes wrong, and perhaps avoid allowing it to influence us in those circumstances. Prejudices are one great example of when the subconscious should not be listened to.
4) We’re Remarkably Bad at Knowing What Drives Us
Once again, since the subconscious operates outside of conscious awareness, by definition it means that we are not aware of what factors it takes into calculating a certain outcome. This means that often times, we are extremely bad at trying to understand why we feel the way we feel. We can, of course, try to come up with explanations that fit our behaviours. We’re quite good at that. But having those explanations match the actual reasons for what we did…now that’s a different thing entirely.
5) Without the “Subconscious”, We’d Be Unable to Make Decisions
Particularly, we’re talking here about emotions, which can easily be classified as part of the subconscious. This seems rather hard to believe at first, especially if you’re someone who thinks of themselves as highly rational. We often think that when we take important decisions, we are logical about them. This may be the case partially. However, emotions are the ones that have the last say in the matter, as they act as the final “push” towards a certain direction.
So, you may be asking yourself “When should I go with what the subconscious tells me to do?”. I’m asking myself the same question, and Blink hasn’t answered it. However, I don’t think that this is blameworthy. As I mentioned earlier, scientists don’t yet understand the conscious, which is quite open to us. Discussing the workings of the subconscious seems quite farfetched in this context.
Regardless, I would still recommend this book if you’re interested in scratching the surface of an amazing topic. It’s easy to follow, and it gives some fascinating insight.