Each moment, the information firehose pumps an explosive amount of data our way. We encounter, comprehend, process and evaluate a seemingly unending stream of input. There have been many efforts to explain the cognitive processes we almost unconsciously use to make sense of our information environment. Of all these, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink often comes to mind when I think human communication; the fundamental ways we transmit and understand information from our surroundings. This topic seems especially of-the-moment, considering the intense dialogue around “fake news” and information authenticity in the US since November.
In some circles, Gladwell is described as an expert on the social sciences; though not everyone would agree with this. It is undeniable that he has produced a thought-provoking body of work in describing human social interaction and information sharing. He describes Blink as an “intellectual adventure story”, stating that it is “about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye” Recently, the Canadian author shared his perceptions of the current US info/political situation, but that is another story altogether.
In the reading group guide attached to the First Back Bay 2007 edition of Blink, Gladwell differentiates a concept he calls “thin slicing (p.18)” from intuition, a word he claims he never uses in the book. He explains that intuition is associated with emotional reactions, whereas thin slicing is a purely cognitive function, involving thought processes and associations much more rapid and unconscious than the conscious decision making we usually associate with thinking. Gladwell suggests that the power of rapid cognition can be practiced and refined to improve the quality of our decision making. However, a large portion of Blink deals with what happens when this rapid cognition, or thin slicing, goes awry.
Gladwell explains that there are powerful cognitive influences which can derail situational thin slicing, such as the “Warren Harding error (p.76)” which occurs when aspects of superficial appearance trigger powerful associations or connotations which lead to inaccurate conclusions on the part of the observer. Blink contains many examples, such as the election of a good looking but politically inept Warren Harding as President in 1921, to support the idea that deeply-rooted cultural, sexual, racial and environmental associations can profoundly influence our rapid cognition, to the point of leading to wrong conclusions. Gladwell advises that we take active steps to manage and control these associations, in a way that will confront the inherent biases in our first impressions and snap judgements.
The rapid cognition phenomena Gladwell describes in Blink process situational circumstances in an instant, leading to various mental and physiological responses in the individual. This explains why we sometimes don’t feel right about a situation which appears to be non threatening; our subconscious has processed a problem which we are not yet consciously aware of. However, it is possible to accumulate too much information for the brain to effectively process, and this can actually impede effective rapid cognition, leading to what we call mistakes in judgement. Gladwell asks us to forgive people in circumstances where good judgement is imperiled because of too much information. Gladwell writes “…what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding (p.264).”
Information science is closely connected with literacy and cognition. Gladwell’s work points out the importance of considering those cultural, sexual, racial and environmental influences which affect user experience in perception and information processing. The connection between culture and cognition is not unique to Malcolm Gladwell. The work of Patricia Montiel Overall (2009) established a strong link between culture and cognition. Patricia Overall cites Schweder (1991) to build upon a perspective in sociocultural psychology in asserting that “the way in which individuals construct knowledge varies across cultures, and that cultural groups’ knowledge is an implicit, tacit or intuitive understanding of concepts in the world in which they live (Overall, p.180).” Further, Overall acknowledges the concept of multiple literacies; citing Kellner (1998) and Street (2003) in pointing out that in a world of global technology, all forms of literacy are social constructs which expand how learners make sense of the world and these multiple literacies are critical to meet the challenges of a multicultural society. Individuals in a diverse society will perceive and process information differently.
An information community may evolve among a group of individuals who share similar cultural, sexual, racial and/or environmental influences. Given these similar cognitive predispositions, which Gladwell cited as powerful influences in rapid cognition, individuals in information communities would tend to thin slice experiences in similar ways. In addition, information communities band together to share information in a variety of contexts, as described by Savolainen (2009); individuals with a certain “cognitive order (p. 1784)” will adhere to that order as long as they find it meaningful, and will seek to share with like-minded others. Elfreda Chatman’s work on information sharing among unique and marginalized populations developed the theory of life in the round which, among other things, pointed out that an individual’s worldview and perceived urgency of need for specific information drives information seeking behavior (Fulton, 2010).
Taken as a whole, the work of Chatman, Gladwell and Overall point out the powerful influences of cultural, sexual, racial and/or environmental associations in human cognition and information seeking/processing behavior. In order to effectively communicate and share information for the betterment of our collective society, we must acknowledge factors which influence the individual’s thin slicing of information in the environment. In addition, as the concept of literacy evolves in response to emerging technologies and increased globalization, we must also acknowledge that the cultural, sexual, racial and/or environmental associations which drive the rapid cognition of individuals will also evolve and change.
As a final call to action, Gladwell states the need to apply conscious action to manage the inherent biases embedded in our own rapid cognition processes. To compensate for gender biases inherent among professional classical musicians, candidates for symphony orchestra positions play their audition pieces from behind a screen, so that evaluators are unable to see their gender. Gladwell states that in the thirty years since this practice began, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of women performers in symphony orchestras. In a similar fashion, we must find ways to manage bias, acknowledge predispositions and accept differences so that we may effectively share information. It is critical to our survival.
Fulton, C. (2010). An ordinary life in the round: Elfreda Annmary Chatman. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(2), 238-259.
Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co./Back Bay Books.
Kellner, D. (1998). “Multiple literacies and critical pedagogy in a multicultural society.” Educational Theory, 48(1), 103–23.
Overall, P. (2009). Cultural competence: A conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. Library Quarterly, 79(2), 175-204.
Savolainen, R. (2009). Everyday life information seeking. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences.
Shweder, R.A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Street, B. (2003). “What’s ‘new in new literacy studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice.” Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5(2), 77–91.