I recently completed Malcolm Gladwell’s second book called “Blink.” I may be one of the last people to read it, as all of his books had lengthy stays on the best seller list. I enjoyed his other three books so much, I felt I needed to complete the cycle. If you have not read it, I would encourage you to do so, as it very compelling and an easy read about how we think without conscious thinking. The more experience we have with a subject, this process yields an effective way of making decisions.
There are numerous examples therein, but one of the easiest to describe is how a leader of a firefighting crew entered a house and when they could not put out an extra hot fire in the kitchen after dousing it several times, the leader sensed something was unusual about the setting. His experience and sensation led him to get the firefighters out of the house now. Just after leaving, the main floor collapsed as the fire was burning from the basement below. His unconscious knew something was amiss and his gut told him to get out quickly. His basis was his vast experience in fighting fires and all he could later think through was the fire was not acting as it should have been – its intensity was high and they were not making a dent in putting it out. Hence, he came to a decision in the blink of an instant.
In the book, though, there is a body of work which allows people to be “primed” to think one way or the other. In essence, when you are making snap decisions, you can actually be predisposed to respond a certain way. Again, there are numerous examples therein, but one that I found compelling is the historical gender discrimination toward women in classical music. At one time there was only about 5% of a symphonic orchestra made up of women and those tended to be around more feminine instruments (their words not mine). What was learned after one woman (with an androgynous first name) became considered for a German symphony playing the trombone after a blind-tryout, is a definite gender bias existed for the previously considered “male” instruments. After she won two law suits proving her claim of discrimination, conductors started doing blind tryouts. They realized it should be about the music and not how you look. After this became more the norm, symphonic orchestras became more evenly split by gender. The conductors were “primed” to think a certain way before which led to the discrimination. The good side of the story is this discrimination has been largely overcome.
While reading the book, it hit me that the spin-doctors in politics are doing what these conductors were doing. In politics, we are being primed to think a certain way. So, if something is said enough, there are people who will believe it to be true. Even those of you who may support an opposing candidate, you can be led to believe some of this priming to be true. You may have observed the GOP likes to use the adjective “job-killing” in front of every Democratic policy. Job-killing regulations, job killing Obamacare, e.g. The spin-doctors are priming you to believe that everything the Democrats or President has done or is doing are job-killing. The irony is the President has done more to create jobs than he is given credit for and, as an Independent voter, I don’t see a lot of job creation ideas coming from the GOP led-Congress.
Some may say we are smarter than that and would not fall for such tactics, but I am convinced in a world of uninformed voters, we can be led to believe a certain way. The more common tactic we have seen in the GOP primaries and before is to reference the “liberal or lame-stream media.” These references have caused a large contagion in the conservative parts of our country to believe the mainstream media is out to get them and the only place they can get unbiased news is through outlets like Fox News. As most people know, this is actually the opposite of what transpires as Fox News is one of the most biased news sources around and fills people with propaganda on a regular basis. They have moved the median to the right on the normal curve, so when fair news is portrayed, it looks like it is more liberal than it is. I have heard more than one editor say, the only bias the media has is toward conflict.
There are numerous examples to draw from and I must confess that I do believe the conservative side of the house does more of this than the more liberal side. Truth be told, this is one of the three major reasons I left the Republican party five years ago. I observed a higher propensity to make stuff up – be it “weapons of mass destruction” or “swift-boating.” People died because of the former priming example and John Kerry was vilified unjustly for having fought in Vietnam by someone who did not in the latter example. Yet, both sides are guilty of the process. Sarah Palin was not qualified to be a Vice-Presidential candidate in 2008 and was not adequately vetted. Yet, if we turned back the clock and John McCain went in another direction, she could have finished her term as Governor, been re-elected and maybe run for Senator of Alaska. If she had put the time in, she may have been a much better candidate with more experience down the road.
I believe once the GOP got over the sugar rush of her candidacy, I think she was in part unfairly vilified by the press which heightened her negatives. Again, she was not qualified or versed in the issues of the day. To be truthful, she may never have gotten up to speed even over time. Yet, while there is legitimacy to the majority of the questions being asked of her, there was also some unfair treatment in my mind. I think Senator McCain saw that. I think she was unfairly promoted as a rock star which probably heightened the media’s criticism. Unfortunately, we will never know, as she liked the rock star image so much, she quit as governor and her credibility will forever suffer. Getting back to “Blink,” she does not have the detailed experience to be able to make the quick on your feet calls about issues of import.
I feel the same way about Vice-President Joe Biden and a lesser extent to former VP Dan Quayle. Biden has actually done a highly commendable job as Vice-President. He has been a tremendous extension of President Obama, especially on foreign affairs, yet people keep waiting to pounce on his gaffes or misspeaks. People are primed to think a certain way about him, so he is not getting the credit he deserves for his work the last three years. Our younger folks may not remember Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice-president. He was not nearly as experienced as Biden, yet like our current VP, the press and others waited to pounce on his gaffes and misspeaks. I felt he was treated unfairly on more than one occasion, even though no one should include him on a list of great VPs. Yet, folks were primed to think a certain way about him. So, he could never overcome this priming.
This is where we must come in. There are numerous blogs from some folks I follow about our increasingly uninformed voting public in the US. I would include the misinformed (or misled) voters among them. We need to ignore the adjectives that are there to prime how we think. We have to work hard to focus on the issues and what people would do given their party or individual stance. What scares me most about a Romney victory has more to do with the stances he and his party take on issues. Global warming is here and is man-made and we have to do something about it. You cannot cut the deficit by reducing taxes – we need to thoughtfully cut spending and raise revenue. We must provide freedom to all people, not just heterosexual Christians. We have far too many guns in America and no one outside of law enforcement should own an AK-47. We have job, infrastructure and education issues which we must resolve. We cannot resolve them by cutting spending for teachers, bridges and mass transit. These are the issues to me.
I guess being an old fart has afforded me one set of experiences – to know when something or someone is full of BS. I have made mistakes and will make them in the future, but we need to call out the BS when we see it and focus on the facts. Otherwise, we will blink and let people tell us what to think. The more facts, experience and context we have, we will be better prepared to let our unconscious make good decisions.