Tuesday, June 05, 2007


The assumption supported in the nonfiction book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is that there is an unconscious mind that allows us to make split-second decisions and have spontaneous reactions. There are a few notable concepts related to this:

Thin-slicing -- the ability to survey a situation and pick out and focus on only the relevant data.

Blink -- to think without consciously thinking. When we have had a sudden insight, made a judgement call on someone or something, or reacted to something when there was no time to contemplate at length, our unconscious mind has blinked.

While the book never goes into much depth and mainly focuses on interesting anecdotes with occasional statistics, it brings up these main points on the nature of the unconscious mind:

1. Our unconscious mind is capable of analyzing complicated situations like the conscious mind can, but can do it much faster in part because it ignores information it considers irrelevant.
2. Our unconscious mind doesn't bother to directly communicate to the conscious mind its reasons for jumping towards certain judgements.
3. The values of the unconscious mind don't necessarily match up with our conscious mind and often directly conflicts.
4. The values of the unconscious mind are trained and can be retrained by experience and the messages embedded in those experiences, whether the conscious mind notices those messages or not.
5. The unconscious mind only communicates its findings indirectly through physical sensations -- sweaty palms, muscular expression, changed hormone levels, and wordless compulsions to act.
6. The conscious mind tends to make up plausible reasons why we felt a certain way or made a certain decision, because the unconscious mind does not offer implicit reasons for its impulses.
6. The unconscious mind is not infallible -- it can thin-slice using the wrong data or make snap judgements based on invalid stereotypes, so insight stemming from a blink should not be relied on without evaluation.

One of the most interesting details of this book is that the rapid decision-making the unconscious mind does seems to mainly be related to cutting out irrelevant information, which is something that can be done consciously via careful study and training. By training ourselves to isolate certain details and ignore the rest, we can teach ourselves to make conscious judgements with rapidity, but with the advantage that we can justify those decisions.