Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below is a review of the popular book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell who also wrote the best seller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The review is by Phyllis Grummon, which originally appeared in Planning for Higher Education, December 2005- February 2006. The Society for College and University Planning Copyright (www.scup.org) ? 1998-2006. http://www1.scup.org/PHE/FMPro?-db=PHE.fp5&-lay=Home&-format=home.htm&-FindAny Reprinted with permission.
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Reviewed by Phyllis Grummon
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell's previous book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, introduced readers to the principles of epidemiology in the context of social influence and idea adoption. In Blink, Gladwell uses his journalistic style to engage readers in the process of rapid cognition-what happens in our brains when we first perceive a situation. Specifically, Gladwell explores how we transfer meaning and action from our past experiences into a moment, sometimes to our benefit and sometimes not. He also provides insight into how experts and novices differ in their interpretations of the same experience: experts have the ability to gain significantly more meaning through "thin-slicing" than do novices. There are a number of areas in integrated planning and design where the lessons of Blink can shed light on our work. Gladwell seeks to explicate how and why "the power of the glance" is both a significant strength and a potential problem when we are approaching a situation, particularly a novel one. More importantly, Gladwell maintains that we can train or retrain our unconscious judgments to make them more helpful to us. While not an expert himself, Gladwell weaves together research that creates a compelling argument for his conclusions.
The first lesson Gladwell presents is that, particularly for experts, it takes very little time-often only seconds-to apply their knowledge to significant problems. Gladwell presents a variety of examples of this phenomenon. One of the most powerful is based on the work of John Gottman, a highly regarded researcher on marital relationships. Gottman began videotaping conversations between husbands and wives more than 20 years ago. At first, he worked on coding all the negative and positive interactions during a 15-minute period. Over time, he learned that raters really only needed to pay attention to one type of exchange to be able to predict with nearly perfect accuracy which couples were most likely to divorce or break up. The thin slice Gottman needed was that of contempt. If one or the other partner expresses contempt during their discussion, it is very probable that the relationship is doomed. If Gottman hears contempt, then "blink", he knows what is likely to happen.
Thin slicing can also predict how likely it is that a medical doctor will be sued for malpractice. Surgeons who have never been sued average three minutes longer with each patient than those who have. One study reported by Gladwell found that raters could correctly predict which doctors were likely to be sued simply by listening to two 10-second clips of their conversations with patients and rating the doctors on the level of dominance they displayed. Doctors who sounded dominant were significantly more likely to be sued.
Thin slicing, of course, is nothing new in our world. We all practice it when we receive a first impression from a person, object, or place. What Gladwell adds to our understanding is just how little sensory input we use to make those judgments and how often they are right regardless of how quickly we make them. Our unconscious processes information and acts on it in ways that may never be available in our conscious decision making. One example Gladwell gives of this phenomenon is the use of scrambled sentence tests that prime us to behave in certain ways through the words included in the test. One set of 10 scrambled sentences includes words that subconsciously remind test participants of being old or of aging. After completing the test, participants walked more slowly down the hall than they did when they walked into the room. None of the participants were conscious of this change. Likewise, participants primed to be polite waited up to one half hour to talk to the experimenter when he was engaged in conversation with someone else. In a number of cases, the participant never interrupted. Subtle cues carry powerful messages within our brains.
What allows these cues to be so powerful? To say they are ingrained by a life immersed in a particular culture tells at least half the story. In order to negotiate our daily lives, our brain makes many decisions without our needing to think about them. The light is red and we stop. We see something that looks inviting and we approach. We see a crumbling building and we cross the street. More insidiously, we meet a tall, handsome stranger and assume he is smart and competent-before he even opens his mouth. Until this election, in fact, the taller candidate for president always won. Gladwell reminds us that these characteristics, tall and handsome, gave us Warren G. Harding-often cited as our least competent and most corrupt president. The instant decisions our unconscious makes can lead us astray, just as they keep us from drowning in our cognitive vacillations. These decisions are most likely to take us to the wrong places when we do not reflect on them and when our passions-but not necessarily our training-carry us there.
Whether John Gottman or a professional food taster, experts have an extra set of filters based on their experience. "Whenever we have something that we are good at-something we care about-that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions" (p. 184). This reality has direct implications for our work on campuses. As experts in planning, our ability to "see" issues and solutions is often far different from that of the people with whom we work. Walking onto a campus, we are likely to have immediate, visceral responses to how welcoming it feels, how safe, how accommodating, and how well-planned it is. While the design may seem chaotic or purposeful to us, less well-schooled visitors likely do not even have the idea of design anywhere in their experience to use as a way to gauge their reactions. In most cases, people are both unaware of what drives their emotional reactions to a place and convinced that their reactions are rational. Experts have reactions, but then can reflect to identify the specific attributes of the thin slice that created them. As experts, then, what do we do to help those we work with overcome their "blink"?
Gladwell works to convince the reader that our naive first impressions can be retrained to be more reflective. How does that happen? First, we need to help those with whom we work to sort through what created their impressions. Creating opportunities for the unconscious to come to awareness is a first step. Asking clients what feelings were evoked by a proposed building, actual landscape, or new academic program can help us link those feelings to the assumptions about place that may or may not be accurate from our expert point of view. The feelings and actions that follow a first impression are real to clients, but not necessarily the appropriate basis for future decisions. Experts need to help those less trained to interpret immediate responses in more global ways. We need to give our clients a vocabulary for their impressions, words that allow customers to find meaning they can use as they consider the future. When they tell us that the design or proposed organizational change "just feels wrong," we need to help them identify more deeply what characteristics might create that reaction. We cannot just dismiss them as resisting change.
Expert planners understand that first impressions cannot be ignored, either their own or those of others. "This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren't grounded in real understanding" (p. 184). Our job as planners, then, is to understand our own grounding and to communicate that in a way that creates understanding in those with whom we interact. Gladwell's book offers insights into how a variety of experts do that for themselves and for us. Its contents are easily accessible since Gladwell acts as a boundary spanner between research on first impressions and our own naive views of how those impressions occur. For those of us who wish to enhance our ability to help others with the translation between an expert "blink" and an un-trained one, this book offers a good start.