Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
Speed Dating is Speed Thinking. Does that make sense?
How often have you made snap judgments and been amazed at how spot-on they were? Classic one-liner follows, “I went with my gut”.
How often have you not gone with your snap judgment because you felt it wasn’t an “informed decision”. But all your due diligence lands you with the wrong decision anyway. Another classic one-liner follows, “Damn I knew It!”
And then there are times when your judgment call has simply been wrong and you wonder how your instinct failed you this time ( This time, “but my intuitions are always right…”)
All of us have had the above experiences at some point or the other. Blink hooks you into reading further in the first few pages itself because you are as familiar as you are confused by your gut feel and want to know more.
Personally, reading this book was a little like therapy for me, I have to confess. Notorious with friends and family for taking intuition-based decisions, or not taking a decision because it didn’t feel right, I was joyous as I found scientific explanations for this kind of decision-making, and childishly clapped on reading about the accuracy and soundness of such decisions (Thanks Malcolm, much gratitude!).
Let’s face it; some people are at peace with the process of decision-making. I am certainly not one of them; in fact, decision making for me has been historically so stressful, that I sometimes actually wish there were no choices to choose from (this is heightened at grocery stores, in the cereal aisle, where I temporarily become anti-capitalist each time).
But can’t run away from them, can we? Our life is almost entirely, a representation of the decisions we have made. They are a part of daily life: which bridges to burn, which ones to cross? Which career paths to go for, what friends and partners to select? Some of us need a little help. Blink it seems can provide some of that.
This is interesting. After all the flak we have received for being judgmental, about people, situations, events in the first few seconds without knowing “enough”, it turns out those few-second judgments are critical. These are what term as gut feels/intuitions/hunches.
But Malcolm doesn’t like to call it any of that. What he says about calling them intuitions explains the flavor of the entire book, the scientific inquiry that has been built up through the chapters to prove that those two seconds are thinking. It’s just thinking that “moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with thinking”. So if you’re looking for a spiritual explanation for your epiphanies, this is not the right read for you (although if you do happen to find one, please let me know)…
In those few seconds, our brain engages in “thin-slicing”, i.e., the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. This is the reason why stress is known to improve performance, because in situations such as war or emergencies, extraneous information falls out and the brain focuses only on what’s critical.
Hence, Blink. Don’t think. It made me wonder that maybe that’s why blinking is such an important part of our everyday cognition. I think maybe we do need to miss out on a little bit of information all the time as we close our eyes to blink, so that the mind can make sense of the world.
The chapters of the book have been masterfully organized to demonstrate these thin-slicing experiences, in wars, police encounters, WW2 Code breaking, medical malpractice and so on. There are others we may relate to more such as Speed-Dating. This is a classic thin slicing experience, where you’re allowed few second/minutes to get a “sense” of the other person with limited time for more information.
It makes you stop and think when a man like Malcolm Gladwell, a science and business reporter, explores the gray areas in snap judgments to finally recommend that for vital matters such as your profession, or your life partners, “the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”
At this point, I really sat up thinking, Are you Serious??
And actually, think about it, does your unconscious ever kick in for routine decisions? Like the cereal aisle, my gut has never leaped out and pointed at strawberry versus honey bran. Our “sense” doesn’t want to expend itself on matters such as cereal apparently.
It is however reassuring to know that science backs the hunches because taking calls based on hunches is both very difficult and very easy. Easy because it comes instinctively…difficult, because it may turn out to be a second guessing nightmare, especially if it is not backed by evidence, or rationale to fall back on in the moments that need reassurance.
Because sometimes these judgment calls can be wrong. In fact, one of the lessons of Blink is that to “understand the true nature of instinctive decision-making is to be forgiving of the people that are trapped in circumstances that imperil good judgment”…bodyguards who could not prevent assassinations, police encounters that killed the wrong people, your own mistakes that resulted from rushing headfirst into a catastrophe despite knowing otherwise. These are moments when we go “mind-blind”, and judgments become fragile. This is perhaps the reason when otherwise normal people take significantly and catastrophically wrong decisions. This is why it is important to know the perils of wrong judgment. This is why, in some cases, we still need information.
Gladwell acknowledges that combining rational deliberation with judgment is then the biggest challenge…we see it in our lives too; entrepreneurs looking to decide on a product despite contradicting market intelligence; women and men going head first into relationships and marriages, despite warnings from friends, families that the partnership may be bad news.
I wonder where all this fits into experience. Experience does call for good judgments. The book says it too. But doesn’t experience then by definition mean more information and this all becomes a little contradictory? As the old adage goes, good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. 25-35 is a better age-box because a lot of our bad decisions are out of the way, paving way for more sound ones. Those bad decisions, I guess then become a part of our backstage inventory of biases, and come back in the form of judgments when needed…maybe what experience does is that it trains us to identify the perils of rapid cognition. There are people, who after bad experiences, introspect way too much. Those people perhaps fall into the other peril of introspection, where everything is over thought through, is confusing and impairing for the brain’s ability to focus on what’s important.
I wish Gladwell delved deeper into how all the bits come together. It is good to know that snap judgments are not necessarily reckless and for the intuitive decision makers like me, very insightful indeed. But it would be nice to know more about how to differentiate situations when rapid condition must be accompanied with analysis and when we can entirely trust the gut.
Let’s hope Gladwell publishes a sequel soon and delves deeper into the unconscious…till then, please feel free to enjoy snap judgments, if nothing else, they are certainly much more fun than introspection. So make that judgment and either buy the book, if u have it, then read it, if you have read it, then do share your thoughts on it…Till then, I’m going to clap some more at the thumbs up for speed thinking.
Disclaimer: This is not a review of the book, given that I am not qualified to review a book like this; these are my personal ruminations and comments on the read. For a more formal review, please visit New York Times, Reviews