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ood news: those split-second decisions you make a million times a day are probably better-informed than you realize. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell probes the stereotypes and science behind snap judgments in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Rich in compelling anecdotes and accessible even to a science dunce, Blink (the follow-up to Gladwell's 2002 bestseller, The Tipping Point) outlines some of the amazing and alarming ways in which we gather and process information without even being aware of it.
Last Sunday, after the football playoffs, the author delayed his post-game constitutional to address Nerve's burning questions about speed dating and whether thumbs matter. — Emily Mead
What piqued your interest in the "adaptive unconscious"?
When I grew my hair out, I started to get stopped by the cops all the time. It's one of those big, dumb, obvious questions — Why is it that when we change some small part of our appearance, the world treats us differently? — which is both really obvious and also kind of puzzling, because why can't the world see the part of us that's the same? Having no formal science training actually freed me up to ask the dumb questions, which are often the most important ones.
The book has a self-help angle to it, especially in regards to racial stereotypes. Was that your intent when you set out?
The racial side is very near and dear to my heart, as someone who is biracial. If you take the test that measures your unconscious level of racism and find out that you have feelings that you can't account for or were unaware of, it's really quite upsetting. I feel like it's not responsible to upset people in that way without giving them some clues as to why they feel that way and how to fix it. I thought it was important to do more than just an intellectual analysis of this phenomenon and give people a sense of how to combat this thing, because it's hard to know, otherwise.
So it's a productive redirection of white liberal-style guilt?
Sure. It's funny, because already, a fair chunk of my mail has been focused on that: either thankful, or very hostile to the notion that there's any such thing as unconscious racism. Some argue is that it's a rational extrapolation from personal experience, but I don't find that terribly plausible.
The speed-dating experiment indicates that, in the heat of the moment, we forget about the qualities that we claim are most important in a partner. Should we let pheromones be our guide, or make ourselves uphold our own standards?
Ideally, you'd want to find someone who satisfies both of those criteria. Or at least you would find some way to balance your unconscious needs with your conscious requirements. But that's easier said than done. One very simple way to describe why relationships go sour is that people, in the initial moment that they made a decision, hadn't worked out the difference between the two kinds of attractions. Either they thought that being attracted in the moment predicted all kinds of things it didn't predict, or they neglected the little voice inside them that said, "You're just not that into this person," because they were too heavily fixated on someone's formal qualifications as a partner. It's obviously the most difficult decision in the world, and that's why we try and fail and try and fail . . .
So everyone develops a system. A friend of mine swears she can tell everything she needs to know about a man's prowess by looking at his thumbs. Could this be as good a basis for judgment as any other?
I don't doubt her ability to tell a lot about a man's prowess in a glance, but she doesn't know what she's taking into account. She thinks she's telling it all from the thumbs, but she's not — her unconscious is summing up all kinds of information. It's only her explanation that I find lacking, not her claim.
So it's not necessarily advisable to reject someone out of hand based on the fact that he's wearing mirrored sunglasses or she's drinking a Stoli vanilla and Diet Coke?
How much of a chance are you willing to take? There's always the possibility that this person will be contrary to your previous experience with guys in weird sunglasses, so you have to remember that your unconscious is essentially trafficking in stereotypes. We see the bad part of that with racial stereotypes. You've watched 7,959 movies and television shows in the course of which a young black man is always a criminal. So you see the young black man and you say "criminal." Now, do you want to trust that? There's a case where I want us to question our unconscious, and it's why I'm deeply ambivalent about this form of thin-slicing. There are moments when we have to rely on it, and in those cases, we ought to make sure that it's as unbiased and clean and pure as possible. But if we don't have to rely on it, then don't.
Do you think that meeting people online allows us to get more information about a potential partner, or is that an illusion?
Well, it's a search engine, right? Let's say there are 100,000 single men in Manhattan — you can't date them all. But if I give you a picture, age, and occupation, you could use that to make the judgment "I'd be interested in knowing more." Online dating is a search tool. You can't meet someone online or even email with them and intuit, with any great degree of success, whether that relationship is going to work. But you can certainly decide if it's someone who it's worthwhile to have a drink with.
Does age affect the adaptive unconscious?
Oh sure. Someone who's sixty has a fraction of the physical abilities of an eighteen year old, but their unconscious knowledge of the driving experience is extraordinarily rich. Without even thinking, they look at the drivers around them and make very accurate judgements about what's going to happen next, what the range of possibilities are. And I think that's true in any number of settings. We've fallen in love with all the great attributes of youth — enthusiasm and energy — but I'd like to reclaim a space for experience.
If our facial micro-expressions can create physiological reactions in addition to just reflecting them, could forcing yourself to grin at a bad girlfriend make you love her?
Think about it in terms of a joke: if I can make you smile, I can give you the experience of being amused, but I can't make you happy. That's what you can do with micro-expressions: you can induce a positive emotion towards someone, but you can't translate that to a long-term change in your emotional state.
How might a guy in a bar alter the priming experiment to improve his chances of luring a woman home with him?
The bar itself is the equivalent of priming in that situation. When you go to a loud bar full of young people and you drink beer, that's all priming, getting you into a state where you behave a certain way and it feels legitimate to make certain decisions, even they're unconscious. If you're asking if I have clues about how guys can pick up girls, the answer is, sadly, no. I wish I did — I'd sell a lot more books. n°
Click here to read an excerpt from Blink.
To buy Blink, click here.