Tuesday, July 20, 2010

book review: blink

I finished reading Blink a few weeks ago, but I've been struggling to sit down and write up my thoughts about it. I think that I've had trouble writing up a review for two reasons: I started reading my next book already (it is a monster), and I'm not really sure how to summarize Blink.

Of course, after reading Blink -- not to mention the constant stream of research that reinforces the idea that most of our emotion, personality, and decision making come from the dark corners of the unconscious -- I'm not sure how much sense it makes to give my conscience reaction to this, or any other book.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the book, as I like all the Malcolm Gladwell books that I've read so far...I just came away from it feeling discouraged about the cognitive abilities of the human brain. Here are a few points that I came away with:

  • unconscious reactions (thin-slicing) happen very quickly -- in seconds
  • our unconscious is in control of most of our decisions
  • it is very difficult to overcome our unconscious prejudices
  • rational explanations are created afterwards to explain unconscious decisions
  • experience can make our thin-slicing response more reliable
  • asking people to explain why they are making a decision will cause them to make a different, usually worse, decision
    • ...unless they are an expert
    • this is one of the fundamental flaws with focus groups
  • having more information to make a decision can often result in a worse decision

This book (and similar research) suggests that much of who we are is locked up in this part of the brain that we can't get at, or even really understand, and our ability to make rational decisions is somewhere between limited and non-existent. If so, what can we do with this information?

On the one hand, it could be considered a little bit depressing, but maybe that is just the reaction from a person who grows up in a culture that puts so much emphasis on free will and personal responsibility. The flip-side has some benefits: we can give ourselves a little slack when we make bad decisions or fall prey to prejudices, and (more importantly) it can help us to make sure that we try to craft circumstances to help prevent any bias from seeping out of our unconscious.

In the end, it is a book worth recommending. Malcolm has a knack for weaving together a wide collection of stories to shine light on the different aspects of the mind. Even when he is showing me how limited my mind is, I still enjoy it...unconsciously.