Blink and the power of the subconscious

June 2, 2007 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

blink.gifWhile in Oklahoma last weekend, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink. It’s supposedly a book about snap judgments—when we should trust them, how we make them, and why snap judgments are sometimes much more reliable than studied decisions.

Actually, I think the book is somewhat inaptly named, given that a large portion of the book isn’t about snap judgments at all. It’s rather about the huge role of the subconscious mind in our decisions and everyday actions.


Consider, for example, the power of priming:

In one study done by the psychologist John Bargh, subjects were presented with a simple exercise that “primed” them by exposing them to certain words associated with old age (such as “bingo,” “Florida,” “gray,” “wrinkles,” etc.).

Though the subjects in the study weren’t aware that they had been primed, the introduction of priming words into their subconscious minds nevertheless affected their behavior: the participants unknowingly started walking more slowly, apparently acting as if they themselves were aging.

Other subjects, primed with words associated with courtesy, were significantly less likely to interrupt others in the period following the test, and they were significantly more likely to wait patiently and courteously than the subjects who had not been primed—but again, the subjects in the test were unaware of their own behavior.

Drastic effects from just a simple question

A second rather interesting study illustrating the importance of the subconscious mind was conducted by two psychologists named Clauda Steele and Joshua Aronson.

exam.jpgThis particular study involved testing black college students with 20 sample questions from the GRE (the standard test used for entry into graduate schools). When the students were asked to identify their race on a pre-test questionnaire, the mere question itself called to their subconscious minds enough of the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans that the students’ scores plummeted: the number of answers they answered correctly was cut in half.

Again, however, the students were unaware of the impact of that one simple question about their race. Even when asked about it, they didn’t recognize the significance of the question to their own performance.

Educating the subconscious

If there is one thing that is clear from Blink, it’s that the subconscious mind has a tremendous impact on our thoughts and behavior—even when we aren’t aware of the effects.

But the most intriguing thing about the subconscious, which Gladwell emphasizes repeatedly, is that the subconscious mind acts based on its education.

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that thoughts and actions from our subconscious minds are outside our control—but according to Gladwell, we aren’t actually helpless when it comes to our unconscious perceptions and decisions. This part of our brains can be trained. What bubbles to the surface from the subconscious, says Gladwell, “is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”

Our subconscious responses, in other words, are not random; they are based on the database of information that we put into our subconscious minds. If we control what goes in, we can also affect what comes out.

Hence, at the end of the book, Gladwell concludes that a smart person doesn’t “look at the power of his unconscious as a magical force. He [looks] at it as something he [can] protect and control and educate” so as to yield more reliable fruit.

This concept puts a new spin on a principle I blogged about a couple months ago—namely that by beholding we become changed.

If subconscious “priming” influences can determine the speed at which I walk, my level of courteousness, and how well I score on a test, no doubt such primers also influence other higher stakes issues (including, say, my moral and ethical behavior). Best, then, to educate my subconscious carefully.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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