affective design

Exploring Emotional Design

Blink vs. Think, or Unconscious vs. Conscious

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, was one book caught in the broad net I threw out while performing my master’s thesis research. When I read the book, I had a couple of issues with it… First off, Gladwell advocates quick decision-making based on learned unconscious responses, while also acknowledging that likes, dislikes, prejudice and stereotypes can all affect the ability to make correct split-second judgments and gut decisions.

In other words, both hard-wired unconscious associations, and learned associations that have become unconscious combine to form an emotional context. This emotional context surrounds the decision and affects the person’s ability to make judgments that are objectively correct.

So while it might not be “right” for someone to hit another person when they get angry, they may do it anyway if their feelings take them that way. In fact, decision-making ability can’t NOT be affected, since we can’t separate cognition and emotion. By being more conscious, we can control our unconscious emotional urges when necessary and expedient. Yet Gladwell still seems to advocate that “thin-slicing” through reality is superior to more deliberate, conscious thought.

So I’m looking forward to having Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of An Eye by Michael R. LeGault in my christmas stocking as a counterpoint to Gladwell’s arguments, and here’s some more reasons why.

Following Norman’s model for emotional design (visceral, behavioral, reflective), we might equate blinking with the visceral, unconscious level of emotional reaction, and thinking with the more reflective, conscious level. Objects that operate only on the visceral level are often seen as shallow, lacking in usefulness (i.e. behavioral qualities) and depth (i.e. reflective qualities).

Although Gladwell didn’t exclusively advocate using purely Blink style decision-making in all situations, it seems as though the common understanding of the book is that decision-making based on immediate, visceral emotions is superior to decision-making based on more conscious, deliberate emotions.

With this oversimplification, complex, reflective ideals like honor, loyalty and commitment become secondary to shallow ideals based purely on aesthetics and visceral feelings.
Applied more practically, in the world of blink, I’d rarely brush my teeth, because most nights, I just don’t feel like it. In the world of think, I know that the discomfort of brushing my teeth tonight will save me from a heap of discomfort down the road.

I’m not saying that decisions made on the basis of unconscious, emotional reactions are any more or less invalid, immoral or inane than decisions made based on conscious emotions. Both are necessary. But let’s remember, there’s a reason why people who are awake are called “conscious, while people who are asleep are called “unconscious”. 😉

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    1. Bobby Hewitt December 7th, 2007 8:56 pm

      You should check out Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. There’s a lot of overlap between unconscious decisions and influence that I think Gladwell missed in Blink.

    2. trevvg December 8th, 2007 9:00 am

      Cialdini’s book was also part of my thesis research. And you’re right, it does a great job of detailing that overlap.

    3. Q April 26th, 2008 8:29 pm

      Yup, so I finished reading Blink and just started reading Think. From a review that I’ve read, it claims that Think is dangerous, often illustrating to the politically incorrectness of LeGault’s arguments (it even goes to claim that he is a self-unaware racist).

      Presuming that you’ve read both books – what are your thoughts on their respective points of view?

    4. Jayal Shroff March 8th, 2010 3:52 am

      The point is not about which is important the conscious or the unconscious… the point is that typically behavior/decision is impacted through conversing with the conscious mind… one should try and do it through the unconscious mind. This way the impact will be far higher and longer lasting.

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