Malcom Gladwell on Improv & Rapid Cognition

There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”

“Improvisation comedy is a wonderful example of the kind of thinking that Blink is about. It involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind or script or plot. That’s what makes it compelling—and to be frank—terrifying.”

“What is terrifying about improv is the fact that it appears utterly random and chaotic. It seems as though you have to get up onstage and make everything up, right there on the spot.”

“But the truth is that improv isn’t random and chaotic at all. If you were to sit down with the cast, for instance, and talk to them at length, you’d quickly find out that they aren’t all the sort of zany, impulsive, free-spirited comedians that you might imagine them to be. Some are quite serious, even nerdy. Every week they get together for a lengthy rehearsal. After each show they gather backstage and critique each other’s performance soberly. Why do they practice so much? Because improv is an art form governed by a series of rules and they want to make sure that when they’re up on stage, everyone abides by those rules.”

Thin slicing

At the heart of Blink is the concept of rapid cognition, or “thin-slicing,” the process by which people make quick assessments of the world using a limited amount of evidence. Sometimes, people base their decisions on thorough, deliberate, and rational choices—yet Gladwell shows that a staggering number of our decisions result from thin-slicing and instinctive hunches about how to act. This kind of decision-making process has some notable advantages, but also some clear problems.

In the early chapters of his book, Gladwell sketches out the basic steps and components of thin-slicing. To begin with, he divides the human mind into two distinct parts: the conscious, rational mind, and the “adaptive unconscious” (the part of the mind that engages in the process of thin-slicing). The conscious mind is good at studying a wide range of evidence and drawing conclusions about what to do from this evidence. However, the adaptive unconscious works very differently from the conscious mind: it’s adept at assessing a very small amount of evidence about the external world (a “thin slice”) and then making an instinctive decision about how to respond to this evidence. (It’s worth noting that Gladwell’s model of the adaptive unconscious is very different from Freud’s theory of the unconscious: unlike Freud’s unconscious, the adaptive unconscious is constantly responding to literal, external stimuli.) It’s important to recognize that the adaptive unconscious acts instinctively and, in a sense, reflexively; put another way, a human being doesn’t necessarily know when he or she’s using the adaptive unconscious. Blink studies the strengths and weaknesses of the adaptive unconscious, and theorizes about the extent to which it’s possible to control it.

As Gladwell acknowledges, the process of rapid cognition has some disadvantages. Rapid cognition is, by definition, prejudicial: it consists of making assessments of other people without all the evidence—in short, “judging a book by its cover.” Therefore, people sometimes make bad decisions because they rely too heavily on the adaptive unconscious; for example, they favor people who seem trustworthy and likable, but aren’t. Put another way, they act on “bad evidence”—the thin slice that determines their behavior (e.g., a person’s appearance or demeanor) isn’t representative of reality. Rapid cognition can also lead people to fall back on racist or sexist stereotypes about other people (see Prejudice theme).

But in spite of its clear problems, rapid cognition also has some notable benefits. Perhaps most importantly, rapid cognition is … rapid. There are many occasions when people don’t have the time to weigh all available evidence. In such a moment, people need to use the adaptive unconscious to decide what to do. The adaptive unconscious is also more adept at interpreting subtle pieces of evidence such as facial cues, which the conscious mind often ignores. In all, Gladwell suggests that human beings would have gone extinct long ago if rapid cognition hadn’t helped them act in times of crisis.

Gladwell never claims that rapid cognition is either perfect or morally right. However, he argues that rapid cognition plays a valuable role in human behavior—a role that’s too-often ignored. By themselves, neither rational decision-making nor thin-slicing can guide humans one hundred percent of the time. But perhaps by combining rationality and rapid cognition in their lives, Gladwell suggests, humans can make the best possible decisions

Sensation transference

“Feeling right” about a luxury purchase involves a concept called “sensation transference.” Defined by a man named Louis Cheskin, sensation transference is when a customer unconsciously transfers his perception of the way a product is packaged over to the actual product.

The idea of sensation transference is that when you look at a product, you form an opinion. And that opinion affects how you perceive the product when you use it. In the case of beer and other drinks, it is the color of the can, or the shape of the bottle, the label, etc.

He describes what a beer manufacturer realized when they tried to figure out why their competitor’s beer was always doing better in the market, in spite of their beer being of good quality, having good advertisements, and having been priced competively. After a series of marketing experiments, they are convinced that beer drinkers liked the taste of their beer but the “packaging” — the bottle, the label, etc. — of their competitor. By redesigning their bottle and putting on a new label, they come back strongly and gain a significant market share.

Another example Gladwell talks about is how 7-Up drinkers complained that the drink had become too “lemony” when the 7-Up company merely added some more “yellow” to the color of the can, with no changes to the drink whatsoever.