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Suppose you are challenged to a simple gambling game in which you are confronted with red and blue stacks of cards, and you have to pick out one card at a time. The deal is that you either win or lose money with each card. What you have not been told is that the blue cards are a much better bet than the red ones. How long will it take you to cotton on?
Psychologists have conducted experiments which show that we start suspecting the difference after about 50 cards and, after another 30 we will be pretty sure of it. Or at least that is what we will think. The statistics, however, tell another story. The chances are that we will start favouring the blue cards after only ten tries, even though we will have no conscious awareness of doing so. We are smarter and quicker than we realise.
Malcolm Gladwell's pacey and beguiling Blink is a sustained investigation of our paradoxical faculty of "thinking without thinking". We are doing it all the time, it seems, and on the whole our rapid and unconscious judgments are astonishingly accurate. When it comes to spotting fake antiques, for example, it may be better to trust the immediate gut reactions of well-informed amateurs instead of relying on scientific experts equipped with batteries of tests - as institutions like the heavily defrauded Getty Museum know to their cost. As Gladwell puts it: "There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis."
Not that first impressions are always reliable or benign. We have an instinctive preference for tall people, which probably explains why chief executives in the US tend to be large - about three inches above average height. No one supposes taller people are really better suited for top jobs, but with corrections for age, sex and race, every extra inch corresponds to an average advantage of nearly $800 in annual salary.
The same kind of instantaneous unconscious prejudice would seem to account for "institutional racism". Gladwell explains a cunning psychological technique called the Implicit Association Test, in which people are asked to link a word with a category as quickly as they can. It turns out that practically everyone takes longer assigning "wonderful" to the category "African American or Good" than assigning it to "European American or Good". The finding applies equally to those with impeccable anti-racist credentials, and to blacks as well as whites. They may take care to be racially impartial when making explicit decisions, but what can they do to prevent unconscious prejudice from biasing their split-second judgments?
Up to a point, the faculty of rapid judgment can be trained. Gladwell has fun in the company of professional food-tasters who have spent 20 years tuning their palates to the point where they can tell which factory has made a particular batch of mass-produced biscuits, not to mention recognising the subtlest hint of lime in the salad dressing. But even the best cannot explain how they do it, and their judgments get less accurate once they start taking time over them or trying to put their reasons into words.
The same is true of psychologists who specialise in the analysis of facial expressions. Don't ask them how they do it, but give them a few seconds of video clip and they will be able to tell, with dreadful accuracy, which doctors are going to get sued, or which couples are going to split up. Once your perceptions have been trained, go for it: speed is of the essence. On the other hand, there is such a thing as reaching conclusions too soon. Armed police are much more likely to make fatal mistakes if they are working in teams, because they are inclined to react too rapidly if part of a group. When on their own they give themselves more time and, as a result, are far safer and more effective. But the time scales are very small: the experiments cited by Gladwell suggest that one second is far too short for emergency decision-making, but three seconds far too long. The rule has to be: "take charge of the first two seconds".
Gladwell's approach is a synthesis of recent developments in experimental psychology, where attention has shifted from so-called problems of consciousness to the realm of unconscious processes - not just the repressed sexual thoughts that preoccupy Freudian psychoanalysts, but the fine tissue of micro-judgments that forms the unnoticed backdrop of all our mental functioning. Guy Claxton's The Wayward Mind touches on some of the same experimental results, but seeks to set them in a vast historical context.
Freud himself acknowledged that his theories were little more than medical adaptations of knowledge that had previously been articulated by poets, seers and storytellers. Claxton elaborates the point with a series of broad-brush sketches of some of the images and theories our forbears resorted to when trying to describe tracts of experience beyond our understanding, independent of our will, or simply out of control. He covers 4,000 years, concentrating on Europe since Homer, and inviting us to chuckle gently at superstitious old notions of "spiritual possession" or "divided souls".
Occasionally he hands out bouquets as well, explaining that Shakespeare could be "peculiarly modern", while Robert Louis Stevenson was "thoroughly modern". The notion of the unconscious was, he argues, first made explicit by the Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century; then it was annexed to psychopathology by various 19th-century thinkers, including Freud (for whom Claxton shows cheery disrespect). Finally, it reached maturity at the end of the 20th century in the form of cognitive neuroscience. Claxton's sweeping narrative leads him to the conclusion that science itself is becoming a wise moral counsellor, helping the mind to feel "at ease with its own unconscious depth", and allowing the "I" to flit from one function to another without reaching after any imaginary principle to tie them all together.
Neuro-science is showing us how to break out of the "locked up self" of the past, according to Claxton. He may be right, and it is certainly a suggestion worth pondering for more than two seconds.
Jonathan Ree's 'I See a Voice' is published by Flamingo; he is co-editor of 'The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy' (Routledge)
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