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Themes and Colors
Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Theme Icon
Rapid Cognition and Prejudice Theme Icon
Rationality vs. Intuition Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
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Rapid Cognition and Prejudice Theme Icon

One of the most evident problems with rapid cognition is that it can be prejudicial. By definition, rapid cognition involves making judgments (often about other people) in the absence of all the information—something we’re usually taught not to do from an early age. Furthermore, rapid cognition is prejudicial in the sense that, over a lifetime, the adaptive unconscious can “accumulate” stereotypes and bigotry, with the result that rapid cognition sometimes motivates bigoted behavior. But while Gladwell acknowledges that rapid cognition is prejudicial, he argues that it’s also possible for people to use rapid cognition to fight racism and other forms of prejudice.

In the first half of Blink, Gladwell shows how the adaptive unconscious accumulates bigotry, sometimes causing bigoted behavior. Over the course of a lifetime, people experience bigoted or stereotypical representations of other people. For example, films, TV shows, and other media portray African Americans as dangerous and criminal to an unfair and unrealistic degree. While people may be consciously aware that these kinds of stereotypes are just stereotypes, the adaptive unconscious may internalize the same stereotypes and respond to them. The result is that the same person may be consciously aware that racism is immoral, and yet act racist, due to the power of the adaptive unconscious. For instance, Gladwell shows that when people are asked to pair dangerous objects with photographs of either black or white people, they’re quicker to associate the objects with black people, perhaps reflecting the racist stereotypes accumulated in the adaptive unconscious. The adaptive unconscious acts intuitively, and often falls back on quick, heavily reinforced mental associations; therefore, in a society where the media ascribes negative stereotypes to certain groups of people, the adaptive unconscious will trigger some bigoted behavior.

While freely admitting that the adaptive unconscious sometimes triggers bigotry, Gladwell goes on to argue that most bigotry results from the absence of rapid cognition, and that rapid cognition can be used to fight bigotry. Although rapid cognition involves making assessments based on limited evidence, it also involves simultaneously assessing many different kinds of evidence, such as facial cues, clothing, age, race, etc. Therefore, a bigot, it could be argued, is someone who focuses on only one form of evidence—a person’s race, age, gender, etc.—and ignores all other available evidence. To make his point, Gladwell discusses Bob Golomb, a highly successful car salesman. Golomb sells a huge number of cars each month because he’s adept at sizing up his clients—“thin-slicing” their facial cues, their gestures, etc. Where many other car salesmen focus most of their attention on older, white, male clients, Golomb claims to treat all his clients the same, regardless of their age, race, or gender, instead of letting these factors cloud his judgment. In short, Golomb uses thin-slicing to overcome the bigotry common in his profession—because he focuses on small but important details about his clients’ behavior, he makes perceptive, accurate judgments about the people who walk into his car dealership.

Gladwell arrives at the strange conclusion that, while some bigotry results from rapid cognition, not all rapid cognition is bigoted, and in fact, rapid cognition can stave off some forms of bigotry. Most people are taught not to “judge a book by its cover,” because it’s morally wrong to presume things about other people; or, put another way, because the “cover” isn’t always representative of what’s inside the book. Gladwell offers an interesting reinterpretation of the old saying: he argues that it is, in fact, possible to learn a lot about a book by thin-slicing its cover. To extend the analogy, a bigot isn’t someone who judges a book by its cover; rather, a bigot is someone who focuses on only one small aspect of the “cover” (for example, race, gender, age, etc.), and ignores the rest of the “cover” (facial cues, gestures, intelligence, conversational style, etc.). Thus, Blink argues that there’s nothing necessarily wrong or immoral about thin-slicing, provided that we use the adaptive conscious to its full potential.

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Rapid Cognition and Prejudice ThemeTracker

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Rapid Cognition and Prejudice Quotes in Blink

Below you will find the important quotes in Blink related to the theme of Rapid Cognition and Prejudice.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Most of us have difficulty believing that a 275-pound football lineman could have a lively and discerning intellect. We just can't get past the stereotype of the dumb jock. But if all we saw of that person was his bookshelf or the art on his walls, we wouldn't have that same problem.

Page Number: 37-38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell gives an example of how thin slicing can be more insightful and accurate about other people than a traditional, well-reasoned judgment. If we were to meet a huge, sweaty football star who happened to have an IQ of 195, we probably wouldn’t think that he was a genius—our stereotypes about athletes would cloud our judgment (or so Gladwell assumes). However, if we thin-sliced his living quarters and saw the books on his shelf, we’d probably stand a better chance of assessing his intelligence correctly.

The point of this example is that thin-slicing isn’t necessarily ignorant or close-minded. Tiny pieces of evidence really do communicate a lot of information—and it’s up to humans to interpret these pieces of evidence. By the same token, the passage suggests that thin slicing and prejudice aren’t one and the same. One the surface, it seems that thin-slicing is, by definition, a form of prejudice: it involves makes judgments about people before we have all the information. But Gladwell’s counterintuitive point is that thin-slicing can actually be a way to sidestep prejudice: by limiting the amount of evidence we study, we also limit our chances of having our judgment clouded by stereotypes or bias.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

The results from these experiments are, obviously, quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act - and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment - are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell’s ideas have some surprising and, as he admits, disturbing, implications. Specifically, the idea of the adaptive unconscious challenges our ordinary understanding of free will. Most people would say that human beings are capable of making free choices, using their rationality, their emotions, and their tastes. Gladwell would say that there is a limit to human freedom. At times, people do things because they’ve been unconsciously conditioned—or “primed,” as he phrases it—to behave a certain way. For example, when people read a list of trigger words such as “old,” “grey,” etc., they walk more slowly afterwords.

Gladwell’s comments about freedom might seem depressing. Nevertheless, Gladwell isn’t saying that humans can be brainwashed into doing anything—trigger words, for example, can nudge people into certain behaviors and actions, but they can’t cause people to lose their willpower altogether. Perhaps it’s fair to say that free will exists on a spectrum: humans are capable of some free choices, but not as many as they thought. Our choices aren’t completely out of our own control, but they are at least partly “susceptible to outside influences.”

Chapter 3 Quotes

The Warren Harding error is the dark side of rapid cognition. It is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination.

Related Characters: Warren Harding
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first two chapters of Blink, Gladwell mostly explored how rapid cognition can be a “tool for good,” in the process avoiding the common-sense belief that rapid cognition is shallow and ignorant. But in Chapter Three, he admits that, indeed, rapid cognition can be tremendously ignorant. He studies the life of Warren Harding, an unremarkable but presidential-looking man who somehow rose to become the President of the United States. Gladwell suggests that people elected Harding because of a failure of rapid cognition: in their haste to vote, they made a decision based on a “thin slice” of evidence (his stately, distinguished appearance), and paid for their mistake.

So Gladwell finally arrives at a point that was, perhaps, obvious from the beginning: rapid cognition is by definition prejudicial, in the sense that it involves making judgments about the world before all the evidence is in. For the rest of the chapter, however, Gladwell will attempt to argue that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater”; in other words, just because some rapid cognition leads to poor decision making, we shouldn’t avoid rapid cognition altogether—it still has some legitimate uses.

The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. As it turns out for example, of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good.

Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses the IAT, a test in which people are asked to associate a list of words with one of two categories. The IAT has many different applications, but one of these applications is that it can measure people’s propensity to discriminate against certain ideas and concepts. For example, when people are asked to categorize words as either “good or African American” or “bad or white,” they complete the test far more slowly, and make more mistakes, than they do when the categories are “bad or African American” or “good or white.” These results might suggest that people (even black people, as Gladwell states here) in North America have been conditioned, over the course of a lifetime, to associate negative ideas with black people—the very definition of racism.

But Gladwell’s real point is that, contrary to what it might seem, the IAT doesn’t prove that most people “are” racist. Because of the power of the adaptive unconscious, it is possible to be a tolerant, unprejudiced person in one’s beliefs, and yet make some prejudiced judgments in the heat of the moment. Even if the conscious, rational mind is capable of tolerance and understanding, the adaptive unconscious might harbor some prejudicial thoughts and ideas.

He may make a million snap judgments about a customer's needs and state of mind, but he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her appearance. He assumes that everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car.

Related Characters: Bob Golomb
Page Number: 90-91
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses Bob Golomb, a brilliant car salesman who sells huge numbers of cars every month because he doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of their age, race, gender, etc. In the car business, discrimination of all kinds is common: car salesmen have only a couple minutes to get potential clients’ attention, and so they fall back on old, unfair stereotypes—for example, they direct most of their attention to older white men, assuming that old white men are more likely to buy cars than, for example, young black women. The point of the passage is that Bob Golomb sells more cars because he ignores stereotyping of this kind altogether. Instead of assuming that certain kinds of people are more likely to buy cars than others, he treats all people the same.

The crux of the passage, however, is that Golomb continues to thin-slice his clients. He doesn’t ignore people on the basis of their race or age, but he does pay close attention to their facial cues, mannerisms, expressions, etc. Thus, the passage is a good example of how people can practice rapid cognition without being prejudiced—and, in fact, how rapid cognition can actually counteract prejudice at times.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage is a good summing up of Gladwell’s conclusions in this chapter. Gladwell has shown that excessive information, contrary to popular belief, isn’t necessarily better. There are some situations—particularly high-stakes situations—in which it’s best to have a smaller, more manageable amount of information.

As the passage makes clear, Gladwell isn’t saying that doctors, soldiers, and other professionals should always make decisions according to their hunches. Rather, the best decision is often one that balances intuition with evidence, instead of veering too far in either direction. Evidence, training, and logic are, of course, highly important components of any successful decision—but they’re not the be-all, end-all. There are times, especially in high-stakes situations, when we have to embrace uncertainty, spontaneity, and improvisation.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The problem is that buried among the things that we hate is a class of products that are in that category only because they are weird. They make us nervous. They are sufficiently different that it takes us some time to understand that we actually like them.

Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Many companies and businesses use polling and test audiences to determine what people want to see in a product. For example, a chair company might ask a couple hundred people to take a survey about their favorite kinds of chairs (e.g., how soft is the chair, how high off the ground is it, what materials is it made from, etc.). Or the company might show a test audience a chair it’s been working on, and ask the audience if it likes the chair.

But the problem with polling and test audiences is that, sometimes, the public doesn’t know what it wants. Indeed, the history of polling is full of examples of revolutionary products that didn’t “test” well, but went on to be huge hits. Often, test audiences don’t like revolutionary products for the simple reason that these products are new and different. But once people get used to a revolutionary product, they might come to enjoy it. In this way, it’s possible for a product to fare poorly among test audiences but become very popular later on.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The Diallo shooting, in other words, falls into a kind of gray area, the middle ground between deliberate and accidental.

Related Characters: Amadou Diallo
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the book, Gladwell studies the Amadou Diallo shooting—a tragic case in which plainclothes police officers shot Diallo, an unarmed immigrant in his own apartment building. While many consider the Diallo shooting to be a textbook example of the racism of American law enforcement, Gladwell offers a more nuanced point. While he doesn’t excuse the police officers for their actions, he suggests that it’s not necessarily true that the officers were racists. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, the officers experienced an error of rapid cognition—they fell back on instinctive, prejudicial behaviors. Gladwell will show how, during the course of a police chase, the heart rate can approach 175 beats per minute—at which point the average human being can barely think at all.

The biggest point to draw from this passage is that Gladwell draws a grey area between deliberate and accidental, encouraging us to rethink the usual categories of free will. Most people believe that humans are free to choose what do; therefore, it follows that people can either be guilty or innocent of a crime. However, Gladwell has already shown that free will isn’t as powerful as we’d like to believe; there are cases when people’s unconscious minds push them in a certain direction, even if they don’t consciously realize it. In this sense, Gladwell suggest, perhaps it’s possible to be both guilty and innocent of a crime.

Most police officers - well over 90 percent - go their whole career without ever firing at anyone, and those who do describe the experience as so unimaginably stressful that it seems reasonable to ask if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism.

Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell theorizes that the four plainclothes police officers who shot at Amadou Diallo were in a state of “temporary autism” after chasing Diallo into his apartment building. This is a surprising idea because, one would think, confronting suspects is “old hat” for a police officer. However, Gladwell points out that even for seasoned police officers, a dangerous confrontation involving firing a gun at a suspect is a pretty rare occurrence; indeed, the vast majority of police officers never fire a weapon at anyone.

Gladwell goes on to posit that when police officers are thrust into high-stakes life-or-death situations, they can’t think clearly. As a result, police officers fall back on their instincts—and as a result, they sometimes fall back on racism and bigotry—even if they would consciously disavow racist ideas. In a state of “temporary autism,” of the kind brought about in a high-stakes situation, police officers can’t interpret people’s facial expressions—thus, in the case of Amadou Diallo, the police officers couldn’t see that Diallo was clearly frightened and panicking—had they noticed, they might not have shot Diallo.

What police training does, at its best, is teach officers how to keep themselves out of this kind of trouble; to avoid the risk of momentary autism. In a traffic stop, for instance, the officer is trained to park behind the car. If it's at night, he shines his brights directly into the car. He walks toward the car on the driver's side, then stops and stands just behind the driver, shining his flashlight over the shoulder onto his or her lap.

Page Number: 234-235
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage discusses the format of police training. Ideally, police officers are trained to follow a strict procedure that minimizes the number of occasions during which they might have to deal with sudden, high-stakes situations. For instance, when a police officer pulls over a driver, they are supposed to stand to the side of the driver, so that if the driver suddenly thrusts his hand into his pocket (as if to draw a weapon), the officer will have an extra split-second to decide what to do. In this way, police officer training is designed to reduce the number of times when an officer might have to make a snap judgment—for example, whether or not the suspect is reaching for a gun or a wallet.

The passage is a good example of Gladwell’s balanced, nuanced approach to discussing rapid cognition. Gladwell isn’t saying that rapid cognition is always ideal. Indeed, in the case of law enforcement, it’s pretty obvious that rapid cognition can lead to some pretty tragic results—for instance, the death of Amadou Diallo. Thus, when a police officer deals with a suspect, they should try to follow routine as thoroughly as possible, instead of depending excessively on rapid cognition. Nevertheless, Gladwell isn’t saying that rapid cognition is always bad, either. Indeed, there are many situations when a police officer must make split-second, life-or-death decisions. In those situations, the police officer should be trained to read facial cues and respond to body language—i.e., the officer should improve their rapid cognitive abilities.

Look at how the officer’s experience and skill allowed him to stretch out that fraction of time, to slow the situation down, to keep gathering information until the last possible moment. He watches the gun come out. He sees the pearly grip. He tracks the direction of the muzzle. He waits for the kid to decide whether to pull the gun up or simply to drop it - and all the while, even as he tracks the progress of the gun, he is also watching the kid's face, to see whether he is dangerous or simply frightened. Is there a more beautiful example of a snap judgment?

Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Toward the end of the chapter, Gladwell discusses a case in which a police officer held a suspect at gunpoint, contemplated shooting him when he reached for his pocket, and then didn't. The police officer noticed that the “kid” was holding a gun, but “something told him” to give the kid a chance and wait a split second longer.

As Gladwell interprets it, the story is a great example of how rapid cognition can actually be a boon to law enforcement. At times, it’s bad for police officers to depend excessively on snap judgments; indeed, it was arguably the four plainclothes officers’ reliance on snap judgments that led to the shooting of Amadou Diallo. However, rapid cognition can be a life-saver in other cases. When officers train themselves to respond to facial cues—as the police officer in this story did—they can use their instincts to decide whether or not to fire their guns. In this case, for example, an officer made a snap judgment, responding to the expression on the kid’s face, which probably saved the kid’s life.

Conclusion Quotes

When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was.

Related Characters: Julie Landsman
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses the rise of blind auditions in the world of classical music. Beginning in the 1980s, orchestras began auditioning performers from behind a screen, so that selection panels couldn’t tell if the performers were male or female. Amazingly, orchestras began to hire more and more women, where previously, women had been de facto excluded from the world of classical music altogether. In Gladwell’s terminology, the introduction of blind auditioning replaced one kind of rapid cognition with another. Before the 1980s, selection panels who auditioned female performers may have made snap judgments about them before they even began to play—because the performers were women, in other words, the selection panels may have been biased against them, no matter how well they played. But when blind auditions became commonplace, however, selection panels could no longer discriminate against women. When the talented performer Julie Landsman auditioned for one prestigious orchestra, the selection panel felt that Landsman was a great musician within just a couple seconds of her performance.

With this passage, Gladwell ends his book on a positive note. Rapid cognition is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. However, at its best, rapid cognition can be a powerful weapon against prejudice and discrimination, helping Julie Landsman rise through the classical music world.