I think we are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition. We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.
This is where Gladwell’s main contention begins: people are taught to believe that a greater amount of information will lead to better and more informed decision-making. There is the case of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals of all kinds who collect information both because they wish to make as accurate and correct decision and choice as possible and also because they do not wish to be reprimanded for negligence or an inability to properly account for as many factors as possible in a choice. Gladwell is skeptical of this widely-held notion, and his entire argument is an attempt to debunk it – he provides a plethora of stories and scientific studies which ostensibly point to the fact that snap judgments, which are the antithesis of well-researched, informed decisions, are both possible and can be accurate.
In some sense, it seems that Gladwell is not challenging the “more information, better judgment” notion because he believes there exists evidence that contradicts it, but also because he is being contrarian. At certain points, the reader will observe that anecdotes or evidence that Gladwell presents do not fit perfectly into his argument – the decisions that people make require little information, but to be able to get to the point where individuals are able to make snap judgments required, at times, years of training and meticulous observation.
Our unconscious is a powerful force. But it’s fallible…When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood. It is possible to learn when to listen to that powerful onboard computer and when to be wary of it.
Gladwell’s main anchor for his central argument is the adaptive unconscious – the part of the brain that makes rapid cognitive decisions in situations of limited information and time. He focuses on the nature of the unconscious, and attempts to unpack the idea that the unconscious can be useful and harmful, mysterious but identifiable. It is this characterization that complicates Gladwell’s claims, and later on in the book it becomes evident that there is no one narrative or theory that can be used to completely understand the unconscious. His claim is also bold: as he says, the nature of the adaptive unconscious is mysterious, and it is incredibly difficult to look into the locked door that protects its sanctity. But it is possible, for Gladwell, to unlock that door and reveal what the mechanics of the unconscious are. What makes his proposition even more ambitious is the fact that, in addition to having the ability to unlock the unconscious, it is possible to know when to trust its instinctive actions and when not to. It is important to keep in mind that this part of the brain operates in tight conditions with little information, and to be able to know when to trust it is a daunting task.
…much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.
Gladwell primes the reader to challenge the dearly held belief that people are the arbiters of their own lives. There are stimuli that can influence decision-making which are very readily visible, but then there are elements that are subtle - ones that disseminate themselves quietly but potently. It is the latter that influence the unconscious so greatly, and because they are largely able to go undetected (unless there is significant effort to recognize and make sense of them), they are just as difficult to influence, tame, and remain cognizant of. How well people think and act instantaneously is in fact subjected to natural instincts that are susceptible to deeply rooted and strongly held notions about society and the people that one encounters.
Have you ever wondered why so many mediocre people find their way into positions of authority in companies and organizations? It’s because when it comes to even the most important positions, our selection decisions are a good deal less rational than we think.
Gladwell points out again the prevalence of snap judgments and preconceived notions that are prevalent in everyday life. He urges the reader to think about the prejudices, ones that are often unconscious, that preempt and strongly influence even the smallest decisions that people make. Here, he is using a data regarding the high percentage tall executives as a way to illustrate how ingrained these biases are, despite feeling arbitrary to the untrained eye.
…truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking…Deliberate thinking is a wonderful tool when we have the luxury of time, the help of a computer, and a clearly defined task, and the fruits of that type of analysis can set the stage for rapid cognition.
Gladwell complicates his argument here, and in some senses contradicts his original claim about relying on snap judgments. It turns out that for Gladwell a mix of expertise and initial reactionary thinking is the key. The argument that one should trust his or her instincts becomes not weaker necessarily, but only more complex. He gives the example of the application of Lee Goldman's algorithm for accurately and quickly deducing the probability of a heart attack at Cook County Hospital. Goldman spent a great deal of time analyzing data but the output of that data was an efficient algorithm that can be used in a matter of minutes.
We like market research because it provides certainty – a score; a prediction; if someone asks us why we made the decision we did, we can point to a number. But the truth is that for the most important decisions, there can be no certainty.
Again, Gladwell challenges the reliance on research, and further problematizes what people consider being a widely accepted proper decision making process: it is incredibly difficult to accept the notion that the most important decisions will result in no certain outcomes. This marginalizes the idea that informed, researched decisions are decisions that allow for greater clarity and a better understanding of what the possible consequences (and what the possibility of those consequences) are.
“Perhaps the most common – and the most important – forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and the impressions we form of other people.
Many of Gladwell’s premises are centered on how people react to the appearance of other people, and what implications that can have. The most important of these is the one regarding police brutality and racial profiling: that 4 police officers killed a black man who was unarmed, and that the circumstances surrounding the shooting do not indicate any sign of criminal wrong doing on the part of the deceased. Gladwell sights this powerful instinctive tendency to make and form impressions of other people as the detrimental aspect of rapid cognition.
Mind-reading failures are sometimes like that. They aren’t always as obvious and spectacular as other breakdowns in rapid cognition. They are subtle and complex and surprisingly common…
This also relates to the failing of the adaptive unconscious to make coherent and proper decisions in times of urgency and stress. Moreover it is difficult how such failures are to be avoided, and how they come about in the first place. Even more surprising (and possibly worrisome), is the inability of people to recognize that they are even failures in the first place.
Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.
This is Gladwell’s attempt at reconciling the failure of snap judgments and the adaptive unconscious. He slows things down, and argues that it is possible, despite the rapidity of snap judgments, to counteract, for example, any negative stereotypes or preconceived notions that one might have about a person.
Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.
The power of snap judgments and rapid cognition are incredibly important and can be fatal in situations where they are used improperly – a point that Gladwell makes throughout the book. He implies that there needs to be a kind of sweet spot, in which a person not only is able to make a quick decision but do it with accuracy and precision – such that a fatal event, such as the Amadou Diallo case, becomes impossible, and a favorable outcome is possible.
Blink Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Blink is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.