Here you are, walking gracefully through the streets of your town. It is an amazing day outside. The air is moist, the sun shines and all seems perfect. You are crossing the street when suddenly you feel that something is wrong. Swiftly you jump on the side of the street providentially landing on a lawn. You don’t know what happened to you in that moment. But when you look back at the street you see a car that passes by at full speed. You are safe now but you could have been dead if it wasn’t for an invisible force that pushed you on the side of the street. Where did that invisible force come from? Was it your guardian angel? Unless you are truly religious you will not accept that explanation. Then, again, where did that invisible force, that instinct that saved your life come from?
The Evolution of the Survival Machine
What you deemed invisible was not so. Indeed, our brains have evolved to guarantee (as much as possible) survival to the human species. In fact, if we were to depend our survival on the genes alone we would have never thrived in an unpredictable and fast world like the one we live in. It is almost like our genes slowly built a machine (our brain) capable of “snap judgments.” Those judgments are formulated each instant of our day. But they happen so quickly that we don’t even realize about their existence until (in some cases) they save our life. But at what extent can we trust those snap judgments?
Malcolm Gladwell in this startling book, “Blink” helps us to assess three crucial points. First, when a “snap judgment” is better than deliberate thinking. Second, when our unconscious (judgment) fails instead. And third, how we can actually train and control our impressions to avoid failures. The first quest is about expertise. Where does it come from? And when can we trust it?
The Nature of Expertise
We often associate talent with genius. We do believe that endowed people have an innate ability that goes behind practice or nurture. In other words we attribute to DNA what instead is based on life experience. Therefore, what we call “expertise” is just the practice of countless hours spent mastering one’s skills about a particular subject. The physician looks at you and in the “blink of an eye” says that you are sick. Is he a magician? He is not. But of course he has seen so many patients throughout his life that he knows something is wrong although he might not be able to explain why. Therefore if in some cases we can trust the ability of what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing.” When is this ability fallible?
Since childhood our brain grows sharper, faster and more accurate. This incessant improvement continues until the third decade of our life (although women reach the mental maturity earlier than men), when we reach our pick. During the first two decades the brain specifically forms an indefinite number of associations based on everything, which surrounds us (town, family, friends). Those associations eventually become who we are. Therefore, when as grown up we move to a new place, we tend to retain the associations we formed to a certain extent. In other words, although we do not realize it we bring with us this heavy baggage that influence our judgments in almost anything we do. How powerful are those associations? And at which extent can they influence us?
Are you racist? (I bet you are)
If I ask you “are you racist?” I bet the answer will be “I am not!” But although your rational mind tells you that, your emotional mind doesn’t always agree with that statement. Given the speed at which your emotional mind operates over your intellect you may be biased although you hardly realize that. To show this point Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink” uses an intriguing tool called “Implicit Association Test” or “IAT.” The objective of this test is to understand how some words are associated in our mind. Many people who take this test discover their hidden (and wrong) associations formed throughout their existence.
Do you vote superficially? (I bet you do)
The new electoral campaign is on. You have to decide whom are you going to vote. Each time it is a very hard choice. In fact, you do not have a predetermined idea since you don’t belong to any political party. Therefore you decide to turn on the TV and look at the last political debate. You are watching the two candidates facing each other. The first candidate is a stout man, less than six foot high and with shaved face and bald hair. The second is a handsome man in his forties. He is solid, tall (well over six foot) and his dark hair is perfectly combed. You rationally think that the first candidate (the old fellow) would make a good president. Although your brain flashes images of the handsome candidate holding the hand of a foreign country’s president, appearing on TV and making your country look incredibly awesome. Thereby even if you promised yourself to vote for the old fellow, ultimately you can’t help it and you end up voting for the young and handsome dude. Eventually the handsome man turns out to be a disastrous president, which embarrasses your country in front of the entire world. This is how powerful your emotional brain is. How can we actually train our first (wrong) impressions?
Train your impressions to fit your rationality
Awareness is certainly the first step. While reading, “Blink” you will realize how powerful and accurate is in some cases your associative machine. But also how fallible it is in many other cases. Ultimately you will learn when to use your snap judgment and when to give space to your “slow thinking” in other more complex situations.
To know more about Gladwell read Outliers
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