Monday, February 15, 2010

What our minds do when we are not paying attention

6. Blink. The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

Continuing my tradition of reading a book about a decade after everyone else, I picked up Blink from a second hand store nearby on a whim. I'd heard of it, and figured I'd give it a read - and it was definitely worth it. Gladwell writes about the snap decisions we make in a blink of an eye, based on not calculated, logical thinking, but feelings that we cannot transcribe into words. "It just felt wrong" seems to be the first reaction, but we hardly ever stop to think why something felt wrong. The reason for the book's existence is that sometimes we people would be better off if we trusted our first instincts - but then again, sometimes snap decisions can destroy lives for nothing. This odd vague thesis of Gladwell's book is a bit chafing at first, until I figured I'd just read it as an interesting summary of in what ways initial reactions work. What are the prompts for "feeling wrong" about something?

Gladwell has a multitude of examples, varying from the good to the bad. He recounts a celebrated event of an art museum purchasing an ancient statue which later turned out to be a fake. It was, however, such a good fake that many experts could not tell it was one. The ones who could could not put it into words. Instead, they would say things such as, and in paraphrase, "Seeing it I felt revolted for a brief moment", or, "The statue just looked off-putting". All the scientific evidence for its age was supposedly there, but these people felt that something was not right. Because enough people felt that something was not quite right, the statue was put under a more in-depth scrutiny. Then the evidence was clear - it could not have been as old as the seller purported. How could the museum still have bought it? The desire to own a genuine, old statue as this one overshadowed all of their doubts. They wanted to believe, and their eyes disregarded all other evidence to the contrary. Only the experts' gut feelings revealed the true nature of the statue.

Another favorite of mine was the long passage about a police scandal, where 3 police officers fired about 40 bullets at an unarmed man in the Bronx. In a job, where quick decisions are needed, these police officers were still too young to be correctly using their initial reactions. For them, a black man alone in the night, in the Bronx, had to be up to no good. When he saw 3 white guys in baseball caps (the police were undercover) pull up to him and start asking what he was doing, he began to run because his initial reaction was that they must be criminals. It was all a terrible conglomeration of misunderstandings based on stereotypes. Gladwell goes onto explain why police officers are nowadays required to patrol alone - when they are alone in a car, they do not make snap decisions. Most of the times inexplicable police brutality has been the result of a) more than one police man or woman in the vehicle and b) at the end of a chase. The chase, Gladwell and the supporting evidence state, raises the person's heart rate, and the higher the heart rate, the more the body gives resources to muscles to perform a fight-and-flight motions - the energy is not going into logical thinking. This is why police are told, after a chase, to wait for backup. Most of the beatings after a police chase have been the result of the chase hyping the police up so bad that they weren't able to think straight, and, being further hyped with fellow officers in the car, they have done some very stupid things at the heat of the moment. Logic gives way to stereotypes and passion in survival mode. (Gladwell kind of skirts around the issue of racial profiling at this point, but states that the police are not racist for committing acts that are prompted by racist stereotypes... Uh. So, I guess you can only be racist if you are one consciously? Sounded to me like he was trying to cover his back by trying to be very diplomatic).

Also the passage on married couples and predictions on whether they will still be married in 10 years was quite interesting. A scientist would film couples talking about something that vaguely had to do with their relationship. At first viewing, the couples might seem like they were in the middle of some witty banter and were coming along amicably. The scientist would slow the tape down, and describe all of their body language to the T, from the tiniest wrinkles at the side of the mouth to the quick eye-rolls. The thing is, we see all of these things and we process them, but we do not recognize them intellectually nor are we able to put them into words. The people who are used to interpreting very subtle changes in facial expressions and thus, in the person's mood, are usually people who have gone through a very traumatic, abusive childhood, where they had to learn quickly to interpret the abusive parent's/sibling's moods and act accordingly.  To compare, Gladwell follows the case of a high-performing autistic man, who cannot interpret social situations because he is unable to read "minds", ie facial expressions. His interpretation of the movie Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which revolves around human relationships and mostly facial actions, ends up being quite different from a non-autistic person's watching point.

The book was very pop-sciency, but fun to read. The scariest souvenir from this book was the notion that our concept of what our thinking is like is so faulty: we can change our sour mood into a happy one just if we hold a pen between our teeth, forcing our face to make smile-related movements. We think that we smile because we are happy, but studies show that the smile can already begin before our brain registers a happy feeling. A lot of facial expressions cannot be reproduced willingly, and a lot of them also are involuntary. The person in the book who has listed all of human facial expressions, and can describe any one person's expressions in acronyms and then replicate them, should be a rich man at this point, as he would be a better lie detector than any machine. A scary thought.

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