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Malcolm Gladwell’s Views on Adaptive Conscious

“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005) is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell, one of the most renowned figures in American letter writing. It gives a logical insight on psychology and behavioral economics, primarily concentrating on the mechanisms and processes that inspire our ability to automatically make rapid decisions from relatively little information, a situation referred to as adaptive conscious. The author reflects on both strengths and the weaknesses of adaptive conscious which he argues could be expert judgments or stereotyping, respectively.

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Gladwell uses the term ‘thin-slicing’ to describe the main theme of his book, which he defines as the ability to judge what is really important, or not, within a very narrow interlude of experience. According to him, the human psyche can constantly examine a situation, scanning all of the necessary information required to make an accurate decision and plot a course of action almost immediately. He attributes this ability to evolutionary developments that have unfolded over the years, giving people the aptitude to assess the actions and intents of each other with just a split-second glimpse.

The book gives examples from different fields and areas of study to support its views. These fields include marketing, science, sales, popular music, medicine as well as illustrations of the experiences that normal people have had with “thin-slicing”. The several chapters in Gladwell’s book generally describe the ways in which our ability to benefit from the thin-slicing skill of the unconscious can be hindered by our socio-cultural environment. He also mentions how the unconscious can be usurped by too much pile up of prejudices and biases and thus vetoes any access to our thin-slicing capacity (Malcom p.45)

In the introduction part, the author begins with the account of the Getty Kouros, a particular type of sculpture that is found at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. He relates the details which surround the 1983 acquirement of the nearly perfect statue, which is rare and only a few intact models of its kind are in existence. As entailed in standard procedures before the acquisition of any relic, the museum conducted an investigation of the metalwork statue to certify its authenticity. The documentation given to the museum by the dealer showed a convincing report of its owneownaddition to substantial scientific analysis on its ancient origins.

With valid evidence presented, the museum was certain of its validity and thus acquired the piece. Malcolm (112) notes “however, another image would usually emerge after the team analyzed the videotaped conversations. They would do this by looking for revealing facial expressions, body language patterns, and gestures which would expose the points of contention in the marriage.” He adds that “with time, their methods became even more sophisticated and within a few seconds of watching tape, they could tell with great accuracy if the couple would remain married.” There were more of these negative responses with time, thus prompting the museum to re-open investigations.

In the end, it was established that the rights papers had been falsified while the methodological facts dating the statue had been misapprehended. According to Gladwell, the spontaneous responses that were witnessed by the experts and other observers were accurate. Despite this being an interesting perception it is not viable enough as proof of the authors belief on adaptive consciousness. This is because the observers might not necessarily have sensed that the statue was counterfeit but rather they statue may not have been pleasing to look at. If the statue was merely revolting, it was bound to extract the same kind of reactions and responses from a vast number of people. This is not a liable basis to make decisions and one might end up having more loses than achievements.

Malcolm (102) notes “however, another image would usually emerge after the team analyzed the videotaped conversations. They would do this by looking for revealing facial expressions, body language patter, ns and gestures which would expose the points of contention in the marriage.” Malcom (50) adds “with time, their methods became even more sophisticated and within a few seconds of watching tape, they could tell with great accuracy if the couple would remain married.” He uses various ideas to show the influence of the ‘thin-slice’ but focuses chiefly on the work of a research group that assesses relationship patterns of married couples and how this influences long-term relations.

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Malcolm (7) notes ‘this was based on the works of John Gottman, a well-recognized psychologist and researcher mainly focusing on marital relationships. The team would observe married couples involved in innocuous conversation which often seemed like nothing more than lighthearted banter. However, another image would usually emerge after the team analyzed the videotaped conversations.” Malcolm (52) adds “they would do this by looking for revealing facial expressions, body language patterns, and gestures which would expose the points of contention in the marriage. With time, their methods became even more sophisticated and within a few seconds of watching tape, they could tell with great accuracy if the couple would remain married.” In Gladwell’s opinion, this is confirmation that human beings have an instinctive ability to ‘thin-slice’ their situations. Conversely, this is not a positive validation in my opinion because it is not, in reality, an actual prediction. To a certain extent, it could possibly be just a formula that was built well after it of a couples’ outcome was apparent.

The second chapter explains the results of several experiments that were recently carried out to prove that our conscious minds have little or no understanding of the ‘thin-slice’ process. In one of the studies where participants were required to construct sentences from scrambled words that included slight cues, they instinctively took up the behaviors that had been subtly suggested to them in the apparently unsystematic sentences that they had unraveled.

Hereby, Gladwell indicates that our perception of how we make decisions is misguided as we underestimate the extent to which external aspects influence our unconscious decision-making processes. This theory, “the storytelling problem,” can be said to be largely accurate due to a few manifest human actions. People usually make certain choices or engage in certain behaviors and invent incorrect reasons which justify these activities yet on closer examination, these decisions are often based on one’s environmental influences and sensitivity.

The book highlights the “Warren Harding error” concept, which emphasizes that our judgments are often erroneous if we permit our unconscious prejudices and biases to avert our ability to make rapid decisions. Malcolm (20) notes “it demonstrates this argument using the former president of U.S.A, Warren Harding, who had no evident political skills but ascended through the political ranks due to his tall, dark and handsome physical appearance and a remarkable voice.” Harding was unable to deal with the responsibilities of the office and is currently regarded as one of the worst presidents in the history of America. Most voters made their decision based on the Halo effect that assumes one good trait – often physical appearance – influences people to believe that all the other traits are just as attractive. In spite of any good intentions, it is a fact that such prejudices often mislead us unconsciously. That is why most physically attractive people are automatically assumed to be intelligent, warmhearted and more friendly.

The book further looks at how too much information impedes our ability to make accurate decisions, also known as analysis paralysis. Gladwell mentions the case of Paul Van Riper, one who had the most unorthodox military philosophy. During the military exercises that were part of the preparations for the 2003 invasion of the Persian Gulf, Van Riper made snap decisions to take bold chances when there was an opportunity and in a short time, he had a tactical advantage over the opposing U.S. team which had a lot of data and often interrupted fighting to engross in long conferences of analysis. This concept can be considered to be correct because of the need to focus on the most vital information while making a decision. This can typically prove to be a big challenge in the occurrence of information overload.

Malcolm (115) notes “he uses a number of case studies mostly from the world of marketing and focus groups. He states that most people make wrong instant decisions if they are asked to decide on something that is outside their range of knowledge or if a problem is detached from its typical context. The author claims that market research should be close as possible to the environment in which the product consumption will occur for it to be accurate.” This concept is accurate because it is often that people do market research in one area where the product actually sells but stalls when taken to another region.

Gladwell concludes his book by explaining some of the results that can occur when there is a rapid succession of erroneous judgments. He uses the case study of Amadou Diallo’s killing by NYPD officers as an illustration. Gladwell states that despite the art of mind-reading being associated with frauds, experts who have been involved in persistent studies of human facial expressions display a keen level of insight on the internal emotions and thought processes of other people. On the contrary, individuals with certain disorders lack the ability to decode facial expressions and according to him, an adrenaline rush can also cause the temporary inhibition of this ability to decode facial expressions.

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Malcolm (45) notes “it’s clearly unmistakable that the initial instinctive response that a person has about another person, object or event in the first seconds of exposure is often the one that proves to be accurate.” In other words, it exemplifies the idea that spontaneous decisions are usually as good as if not better than those that have been cautiously and carefully considered. Therefore, if we learn and act accordingly on the supremacy of rapid decision making, we can also integrate and expand on solutions that will protect our ‘thin-slicing’ ability from the manipulation of prejudice and bias.

Works Cited

Malcolm, Gladwell. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2020, December 1). Malcolm Gladwell's Views on Adaptive Conscious. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/malcolm-gladwells-views-on-adaptive-conscious/

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"Malcolm Gladwell's Views on Adaptive Conscious." StudyCorgi, 1 Dec. 2020, studycorgi.com/malcolm-gladwells-views-on-adaptive-conscious/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Malcolm Gladwell's Views on Adaptive Conscious." December 1, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/malcolm-gladwells-views-on-adaptive-conscious/.


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StudyCorgi. 2020. "Malcolm Gladwell's Views on Adaptive Conscious." December 1, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/malcolm-gladwells-views-on-adaptive-conscious/.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Malcolm Gladwell's Views on Adaptive Conscious'. 1 December.

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