To Think or Not to Think-That is the Question

Think back to when you had a first date or when you were mingling with a stranger at a party. I bet within the first five minutes of conversing with that person you had configured a picture of compatibility or a feeling of dislike. The ability of your brain to process information without you realizing it is known as adaptive unconscious. This unconscious processing and our ability to make choices in an instant are discussed in the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. In most cases, people trust their conscious decision making more then their unconscious snap judgments. Gladwell makes the point that “thin-slicing” (the automatic processing of information in the first seconds on a situation) is many times the only information needed to make the best decision. In some cases, too much information confuses an issue and makes it appear more complicated. For example, forged artwork is easily identified by experts when only looked at for a brief second. They usually have a “gut feeling” that something is off and can say with great accuracy which pieces should be purchased and which should be thrown away. Another example of this is when relationship experts watch couples converse for only five minutes-they can accurately predict which will be divorced in the next 15 years. In both of these cases, the experts didn’t need to analyze all the information. The brains of those who are expert in a particular field are quite good when it comes to snap reactions. We all possess the general ability to process information in seconds because it allowed us to survive; jumping from snake bites or a jealous cavewomen.

Does thin-slicing always help us out when it comes to making decisions? Not at all. The problem is that in moments of quick judgement we are unconsciously primed by stress, lack of experience, and societal stereotypes. For example, police officers although not consciously racist or prejudice will respond differently to black males compared to white males in a split-second decision. Research also shows, that in split second judgments, both white and black participants were more negative to black people then white people. The unconscious kicks in and is primed by societal stereotypes and images seen in the media; the real-world result is many times a killing of a innocent young male and a cop being accused of a hate crime. This makes me think of the Ferguson shooting and explains possibly what happened. On a positive note, with training and experience, this unconscious reaction can be identified and better controlled. For example, cops are being told to wait for backup, be more cautious, and slow down their decision making so that it is more conscious. I know there is racism in the US but I think that priming and thin-slicing helps better explain why black men are more susceptible to police shootings compared to white men; giving the benefit of the doubt to the involved police that they are not racial bigots. Let’s train our doctors, generals, police officers, and all service workers who need to make quick decisions on the dangers and benefits of thin-slicing. Our ability to blink and make decisions is a gift in a lot of scenarios but with a society that constantly bombards us with stereotyped messages it can become a lethal handicap.

One Smart Dude

Who would have thought that ketchup appeals to toddlers because it provides familiarity when trying new foods and tantalizes all five taste sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. This little factoid was written about in the most recent book that I completed, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell. I have read several Malcolm Gladwell books and find the man extremely interesting. Gladwell can take a boring subject like hair dye and connect it to history, sociology, and psychology in a way that you would never expect. What the Dog Saw is a compilation of 19 writings from The New Yorker which touch on so many categories it is extremely hard to speak about all of them. One of the articles was about John Rock, the inventor of the “Pill” in the 1950’s, and how he designed it to have a 7 day placebo because he still wanted women to have periods and make the process as natural as possible. This push for naturalness was based on his desire to appeal to the Catholic Church. Gladwell digs deeper and actually cites research that shows women in native cultures, on average, only have 100 periods in their lifetime compared to modern-westernized women who average 400 periods in their lifetime (due to age of first menarche, total number of pregnancies, and breastfeeding length). The increase in periods in the modern age is connected with the increases in breast and reproductive related cancers. This is due to the fact that each cycle causes an onslaught of hormones that cause cell division-increasing chances of mutation and something going wrong. My question is whether women should take a contraceptive that limits periods to only a few times per year to model a more natural frequency (100 vs 400 periods in a lifetime)? 

Another essay concerned the problem of homelessness and how we should go about fixing it. Research shows that the homeless cost the system quite a bit of money because of their dependency on shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and most of all emergency healthcare services. It was found that it would be cheaper to give the homeless an apartment for free and try to get them back on their feet which would decrease their usage of the aforementioned services. This is currently being done in several US cities but is fraught with controversy. Why do homeless people get free housing when there are hard working Americans struggling to pay their rent? Why would we keep paying for housing if they show no desire to stop their addictions? In the end, whether the homeless deserve the housing or not, it is a decision based on simple economics-a person on the street drains taxpayers dollars more than a person living in a stable, albeit free, apartment setting. 

Some other tidbits of information I learned are as follows: you can buy “Put Options” that bet against the stock market’s success, mammograms are extremely hard to interpret, driving fatalities would decrease if we switched which side of the rode we drove on every 5 years, plagiarism is acceptable in music but not in writing, criminal profiling is essentially worthless, and pit bulls are not inherently dangerous to humans. If you like to know more about these points then read the book. I think all Gladwell books are great because he thinks about things in a different way than most people. My mind has been thoroughly expanded thanks to this quirky-looking man. 

Summed up learning sentence:

The ordinary can be quite extraordinary and surface-level understanding is almost never adequate.