instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Instinct as a bona fide source of judgment

Thanks to weather-related travel delays, I had the opportunity last night to read Malcom Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. One of those books read by everyone who reads the books everyone reads, Blink is, to quote the introduction, about "those instantaneous impression and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress."

Gladwell writes anecdotally* about the two very different ways humans have of reaching decisions: the discursive or logical; and the intuitive or unconscious, the snap judgments we make in the blink of an eye. He makes a compelling case that the following are all true:
  • Discursive judgment and unconscious judgment are good at solving different kinds of problems.
  • For many complex problems, unconscious judgment using minimal information ("thin-slicing") can be better than discursive judgment using maximal information.
  • Discursive judgment and unconscious judgment mess with each other.**
  • All sorts of things mess with unconscious judgment.
Some of the things that mess with unconscious judgment are generally known to us -- tall, thin, attractive, and white people are on average judged to be better than short, fat, ugly, and black people, respectively, even when the judgers aren't conscious of any prejudice. (You may have seen this website, with lots of tests that reveal -- well, statistically significant differences in the times it takes to perform certain mental tasks. Interpreting the differences is a different question.)

Others effects on the unconscious are more surprising. People act older when they're exposed (without consciously noticing it) to words related to old people; they're more rude when exposed to words related to rudeness. What's surprising, I suppose, isn't that such priming can happen, but how subtle and successful the priming can be.

Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I've put these ideas into the context of St. Thomas's theory of virtue.

*. Many of Gladwell's anecdotes are about scientific studies, but the book itself is not, and doesn't try to be, scientific.

**. One example from the book: College students and tasting experts were asked to rate different brands of strawberry jam. The experts, of course, used their expertise. One group of students was simply asked to rank the jams by taste; their answers correlated with the experts'. Another group of students was asked to explain why they ranked the jams as they did; their answers did not correlate with the experts'. Gladwell explains the effect this way: "we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preferences to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason." The key point, I think, is that the students in the second group weren't "wrong," much less untruthful, in their answers; but the answers the students gave were different than they would have been if the students hadn't tried to reason about them first.