April 21st, 2012

Books!

"Put the glasses on! Put 'em on!"

I don't know why these books never crossed my radar back when they were coming out … they sold tons of copies, and I guess got lots of ink, but I was oblivious to them until much later. In fact, I tried to get an interview with Lois Weisberg, the Chicago Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, some years back (related to a job opening I'd seen), having seen her mentioned in a magazine article, and I got a note from “her people” saying that ever since appearing in The Tipping Point , she was so swamped with requests that she just couldn't do any … and I had no clue! So, although I came late to the books of Malcolm Gladwell, I've been catching up ... in this case, with Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

This book is a collection of stories from a wide array of contexts and settings, all dealing with the way our perception works. From the instant “read” we might have on something (in the first piece here, a forgery of a statue), that can be more accurate than expert study, to how our unconscious can mis-read the “truth” in a situation, and to how this can be managed and even trained.

There is an awful lot of individual bits and pieces of research, background, and narrative here, so it's not something where I can sketch out the “story arc”, instead, I've pulled out a few quotes that I think give a taste of what's in here.

First is a thing that deals with looking at which doctors get sued, and which don't. Contrary to what one would expect, this has very little to do with their competence or track record. Even odder, the research leading into this was based on studying couples with an eye to which were going to break up or not.

{The researcher} listened to {the study's} tapes, zeroing in on the conversations that had been recorded between just surgeons and their patients. For each surgeon, she picked two patient conversations. Then, from each conversation, she selected two ten-second clips of the doctor talking, so her slice was a total of forty seconds. Finally, she “content-filtered” the slices, which means she removed the high-frequency sounds from speech that enable us to recognize individual words. What's left after content-filtering is a kind of garble that preserves intonation, pitch, and rhythm but erases content. Using that slice – and that slice alone – {she} did a Gottman-style analysis. She had judges rate the slices of garble for such qualities as warmth, hostility, dominance, and anxiousness, and she found that by only using those ratings, she could predict which surgeons got sued and which didn't.
So, from less than a minute of meaningless speech patterns, signals came through which allowed accurate predictions of which surgeons were sued … how? It turns out that the attitude of the doctors, which came through all this reduction, was the key element … those that were treating patients like a case and not like a person were the ones that ended up being sued if things went wrong.

There were other experiments that showed that subtle elements could change results dramatically … asked to think of professors or soccer hooligans before taking a test, the former (randomly selected) group of subjects got 55.6% right while the latter got only 42.6% correct … a huge difference just from thinking of a particular “type” before the test! More dramatically, a study of Black students showed that the group asked to fill out a questionnaire before the test that had a place to identify their race, scored only half as well as a similar group whose pre-test form did not have that question.

The results from these experiments are, obviously, quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.
What was striking here was that the pattern of influence was evident in a wide swath of studies, quizzes full of items about senior citizens had their college student subjects moving far more slowly and hesitantly on their way out of the testing center than peers who didn't have those cues … people “primed” with word scrambles that either had “rude” or “polite” entries in them acted out the programming in a subsequent “accidental” encounter, with 82% of the “polite” subject never interrupting in an structured inconvenient situation. It makes you wonder how close movies like They Live are about the messages being fed to us!

On the flip side “they” don't necessarily have a firm grasp on all this … there's a section dealing with “sensation transference” where product packaging totally overwhelms things that one would expect to be top difference-makers, like taste or brand name … or situations where our “gut reaction” has five times the accuracy than when we're asked to analyze why we prefer A to B. One of the issues raised here is that people are rather change averse, and “different” is often taken for “bad”:

The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different. … {in initial testing of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show} Viewers said they hated them. But, as quickly became clear when these sitcoms became two of the most successful programs in television history, viewers didn't actually hate them. They were just shocked by them. And market researchers at CBS utterly failed to distinguish between these two very different emotions.
The challenge is to find out what is just so new that it shocks, but then is embraced, and what is actually bad and will never find a wide audience. There's also a test you can try at home … do a blind “sip” test between Coke and Pepsi, and many (but by no means all) can pick which is which, but throw in a third cup, and a second serving of one of these, the average success rate drops to 1/3rd – right at chance – and Gladwell reports that when he tried this on a group of his friends, they all failed to make the correct identifications!

Finally, as though to validate the “happy smiley”, “fake it till you make it” people, it appears that just trying to look a particular way effects the whole body/mind complex … suggesting that those (irritating) people who go through the day smiling like they're having a great time, are actually ending up happier than those of us with a firmer grip on reality …

{Researchers} gathered a group of volunteers and hooked them up to monitors measuring their heart rate and body temperature – the physiological signals of such emotions as anger, sadness, and fear. Half of the volunteers were told to try to remember and relive a particularly stressful experience. The other half were simply shown how to create, on their faces, the expressions that corresponded to stressful emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear. The second group, the people who were acting, showed the same physiological responses, the same heightened heart rate and body temperature as the first group.
Again, this is just a small sampling of what's covered in Blink … it's an amazing collection of things that will shake how you see the world, and maybe even change the way you go about things (I know that the next time I need to take a test, I'm going to start making a list of “genius things” before I go in!).

Despite being out for seven years, Blink is still in print, available in both hardcover and paperback, so it should be available in the brick-and-mortar stores, but the on-line big boys have it at about 1/3rd off of cover, and the new/used vendors have “very good” copies of the hardcover for as little as a penny (plus shipping). This is one that is such a “shock to the system” that I really wish everybody would read it … it's in the intersection of a good read, an interesting study of human psychology, and a satori-like unfolding of an unsuspected reality. If enough folks read this, maybe we won't need George Nada's sunglasses to see the “obey” and “consume” signs!


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