Malcolm Gladwell

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Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Theme Icon
Rapid Cognition and Prejudice 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 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:
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
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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:

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:

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
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Chapter 4 Quotes

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

Page Number: 141
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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
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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:

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:

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:

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
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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
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