What Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink Teaches About Virtue

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink provides an anecdotal account of how split-second decisions are made through a process Gladwell calls “rapid cognition” or “thin-slicing.” Gladwell distinguishes this type of rapid cognition from intuition, which he claims is more emotional, claiming that rapid cognition is a distinctly rational process, a type of thinking that simply movers a little faster than ordinary conscious and deliberate decision-making.

One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with first impressions about race, particularly those that happen at a subconscious level. In the chapter entitled “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Dark, Handsome Men,” Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT, developed by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level and the immediate and automatic associations a person makes before that person has time to think. In the IAT designed to examine automatic associations with race, a tested individual is timed to see how quickly they associate categories of good and bad adjectives with black and white faces. The test results reveal that the 80% of Americans more quickly pair words like “love,” “peace,” and “joy” with white faces and words like “terrible,” “evil,” and “failure” with black faces. The level of difference is a matter of microseconds, yet is still statistically significant.

What the IAT most significantly reveals is that unconscious attitudes and the behaviors which those attitudes give rise to may be completely incompatible with a person’s conscious values. Even those who consider themselves very enlightened in matters of race still overwhelmingly tend to have an implicit preference for whites. Gladwell himself, who is half-black, was found to have a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” As he notes in the chapter, he considers himself an enlightened and progressive individual on the matter of race relations, with a strong conviction that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell’s point, however, is that just knowing of cognitively assenting to the idea that the two races are equal does not tell the whole story. He writes,

Our attitudes towards race and gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious level. These are what we choose to believe. . . . which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. . . . But the IAT measures something else, our attitude toward racism on an unconscious level. the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we have had time to think. We do not deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes . . . [and] we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our subconscious silently crunches all the data it has from all the experiences we’ve had the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen . . .and it forms an opinion. That is what is coming out in the IAT. The disturbing thing about the IAT is that it shows us that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated values.

The IAT does not just reveal what we subconsciously believe, which a virtue ethicist like myself would call a “disposition.” It is also a predictor of how we behave. A person with a subconscious preference for or dispositional tendency towards whites will in conversation lean in towards black people less, stutter more, and become visibly tenser. These subtle cues can have a major impact on our social engagements. Gladlwell cites law professor Ian Ayres’ study of racial discrimination by Chicago car dealers which found that car dealers gave the lowest initial offer to white men, and the highest initial offer to black men. Even after 40 minutes of negotiating, black car shoppers were still offered prices nearly $800 times higher than the initial offer made to white shoppers.

Much more disturbing is the discussion of Amadou Diallo, a black man who was shot 41 times by four cops who saw him standing on the street corner in the South Bronx late at night. Gladwell argues that these cops, though probably not explicitly or even consciously racist, displayed certain racially-motivated automatic implicit associations that caused them to make a prejudicial, and in this case, lethal split second decision:

The officers, observing Diallo on the stoop, sized him up and in that instant decided he looked suspicious. That was mistake number one. Then they backed the car up, and Diallou didn’t move. [Officer] Carroll later said that “amazed” him: How brazen was this man, who didn’t run at the sight of the police? Diallou wasn’t brazen. He was curious. That was mistake number two. Then Carroll and [officer] Murphy stepped toward Diallou on the stoop and watched him turn slightly to the side, and make a movement for his pocket. In that split second, they decided he was dangerous. But he was not. He was terrified. That was mistake number three.

Seven seconds later, Diallo was dead, shot 41 times, wallet in hand. When the four cops went to trial and were found “not guilty,” there were protests against what was widely perceived as a racial injustice. It seemed that these four cops were clearly guilty of overt racism that motivated them to shoot an innocent man. Gladwell, however, interprets the situation differently. He argues that these four cops, due to past experiences both personally and professionally with black people caused them to automatically and implicitly associate black people with danger, much more quickly than they might associate white people with a threat. These cops were habituated to automatically conclude that a black man in a dangerous New York neighborhood reaching into his pocket meant trouble, and their automatic implicit associations cost an innocent man his life. Gladwell’s point in describing these racial anecdotes is that even if we do not think of ourselves as racist, and even if our consciously held values hold that blacks and whites are equal, our split second decisions or “thin-slicing” activities, as Gladwell describes them, may indicate deep-seated, racist tendencies.

So what do we do about our subconscious, split-second tendencies to prefer whites over blacks? We cannot, as Gladwell argues, simply try to develop our conscious values. That is, we cannot just think more that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell considers himself a consciously tolerant person and still, his IAT indicates an unconscious preference for white people.

“I’ve taken the race IAT on many occasions and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your feelings towards blacks and whites are. I answered, as I am sure most of you would, that I think of the two races as equal.”

Gladwell’s theory about rapid cognition or thin-slicing indicates that it is not enough to make certain conscious changes in attitudes or values, but must also acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter our subconscious, thereby undermining our conscious attitudes. Gladwell argues, however, that by taking control of the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, one can also control rapid cognition and prevent or lessen the mistakes made.

He suggests that we have a responsibility to not only alter our conscious values, but also to alter our environments in such a way to develop our rapid cognition to make the best possible split-second decisions. People’s results on the race IAT change if they expose themselves to images and verbal information about black people with positive connotations prior to taking the test. People who look at a picture or read a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. right before taking the IAT, for example, register much less implicit racial prejudice than other test takers. More practically, Gladwell suggests that putting ourselves in environments that expose us on a regular basis to racial minorities can alter our stereotypes of them and thus alter our unconscious automatic reactions to them. Thus, despite the fact that racial and other implicit attitudes operate on both a conscious and unconscious level, Gladwell seems to think that we are still morally accountable for even those automatic associations not governed by conscious choice.

Although Gladwell does address any theory of virtue or the moral psychology underlying a virtue ethic, his description of rapid cognition illustrates a remarkable parallel in contemporary psychology with what Aquinas calls a habit [habitus]. More remarkably, Gladwell inadvertently illustrates how habits—both good and bad—can be developed not through rational control over attitudes and behaviors, but by the subtle interaction between a person and her environment. Changing a bad habit, therefore, is not just about conscious effort. Any smoker can tell you this. A person who tries to quit smoking despite the fact that her friends are all smokers and much of her social engagements revolve around smoking is likely to be unsuccessful, no matter how hard she tries to change her habit. Rather, she must also change her environment. She must put herself in situations where she cannot reach for a cigarette for pleasure or stress-relief; she must surround herself with non-smokers, and engage in activities where smoking is contrary to enjoying the activity, like long bike rides. In short, developing virtue through habituation is as much about trying to make conscious dispositional changes as it is about putting ourselves into situations where we don’t need to try.

Additionally, if we take Gladwell’s book seriously, we must conclude that we are habituated in ways which we do not intend all the time. We may read fashion magazines and think that we approach these enlightened about body satisfaction and weight, but simply exposing ourselves to these magazines over and over again, whether we realize it or not, habituates us to associate beauty and desirability with thinness, as I wrote about here. We may think that we can watch overtly violent or sexually explicit films and not become influenced to be more violent or more lustful, but Gladwell’s research (and virtue ethics) says otherwise. We may live in an overwhelmingly white and middle-class neighborhood and think of ourselves as racially unprejudiced, but I bet the IAT would say otherwise. What Gladwell’s book teaches us is that our moral development is much more dynamic than we consciously recognize.

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1 comment so far

  1. Charles on

    Fascinating! I couldn’t help but think (way) back to my old catechism days and the admonition to “avoid the near occasion of sin.”


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