To Think or Not To Think, That is The Question
To Think or Not To Think, That is The Question
“Judgment matters: it is what separates winners from losers” (260). Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is a book about understanding how we arrive at the judgments we make. There are two ways that we make every decision: in the blink of an eye or with well thought out decision making processes. In this book Gladwell explores the many different ways that we make decisions using our adaptive unconscious. He attempts to convince the reader that snap decisions can be just as good as ones we ponder upon.
In all aspects of our life we are continuously making decisions. Often times we go with our instincts. An instinct is something that is created by a collage of past experiences and the knowledge we have gained from them. The unconscious can make better decisions than the conscious at times. Have you ever had a “gut reaction” to something and then thought about it for a while and changed your mind? Frequently thinking is the wrong thing to do and the instinctive decision was the best one. Teaching us how the mind works during decision making is Gladwell’s main goal. From there it is up to us.
The book begins with the story of the Getty Museum in California and the fourteen month process involved in their purchase of a Greek kuoros. The museum hired lawyers, geologists and researched the basics on what the style of a Greek kuoros would be. Eventually they were satisfied with all the information they had gathered and they purchased the statue. There was a big problem though. Numerous art experts looked at the kuoros and within seconds had a bad feeling about it. Their instincts were telling them that the statue was a fake. After much debate, the museum resigned itself to listing the kuoros in their catalog with the words “About 530BC, or modern forgery” (8).
One way to hone our instincts is using something called thin-slicing. This is the process where you slow down what is happening. You take thin slices of time and use the pieces of knowledge you gain from that slice to make your decision. Gladwell draws on multiple studies and experiments to explain this. The study that is the most prevalent and mentioned throughout the book was what would become The Mathematics of Divorce by John Gottman. In this study Gottman videotaped couples engaging in a discussion about a contentious topic in their marriage. There were multiple sensors monitoring the couple’s physical changes, such as heart rate and movement. He found that by breaking down the videotaped interaction into fractions of a second and applying the information to a mathematical chart he was able to predict divorce rates among the couples. After watching just an hour of video tape per couple, Gottman is able to predict the divorce rate in the span of fifteen years with ninety-five percent accuracy.
The next section of the book explains what defines a snap decision. When you experience something there is a feeling of knowing. You can’t explain how you know, you just know. He gives the example of tennis coach Vic Braden. Braden is able to predict when a tennis player is going to double-fault on his serve before the player had even released the ball from his hand. Braden was searching for an answer as to why he was able to do this and he couldn’t find one. It was a snap judgment, an instinct and something that cannot be explained.
Instincts can also lead you astray. Gladwell’s chapter about Warren Harding explains how the former president rose up through the political ranks based solely on his appearance and the way he spoke. He was not a terribly impressive man intellectually, but voters went with their first impression of him. He won because he was the most handsome and eloquent candidate, not because he was the best.
Our first impressions are not 100% reliable. We all have associations between certain things that are ingrained in our unconscious minds and we’re not even aware of them. There are stereotypes inside everyone, even when we consciously think there are not. Gladwell explains that “unconscious attitudes are not compatible with values” (85). Our experiences create our first impressions, including those experiences that are negative. As I stated earlier, associations become ingrained in our unconscious minds even if we’re not aware of them on a conscious level. That is a case where a snap decision would be one made without having enough information. The opposite can be true as well. Sometimes we have too much information.
Gladwell tells the story of heart attack diagnoses at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. The doctors were running many tests and gathering too much information to accurately separate patients of different heart attack probabilities. The hospital reformed the way they analyzed heart attack patients by talking extensively with them along with doing some minimal testing. Using this new system proved to be more effective than when they were amassing a large amount of data. The author states that “truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking” (141).
Gladwell goes on to cite a study by Jonathan Schooler and Timothy Wilson regarding people’s preference in jam. Random shoppers at the grocery story were asked to sample several types of jam and rank them in order based on which was the best. When asked to explain why they made the choices they did many of the shoppers changed the order in which they’d ranked the jams. Why? Because when you have to explain an instinctive decision it’s difficult to put into words. This can lead people to change their choice to one that can be explained.
One snap decision that was difficult to explain involved the shooting of Amadou Diallo, and unarmed man, by four police officers. They spotted Diallo in a dark entry way in a bad part of town late at night. When they spoke to him, he did not comply with their orders and began pulling something from his pocket. The situation was unfolding quickly. The officers didn’t take time to thin slice what was happening, to read Diallo’s mind. They assumed he was reaching for a gun, so they shot him. In truth he’d only been reaching for his wallet. Events need to be slowed down and thin sliced in order to listen to what instinct is telling us. We need to pay attention to what is occurring in fractions of seconds, not in minutes. Gladwell states, “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” (241).
In the end, it is up to each of us to explore our adaptive unconscious and discover the pieces that make up our snap decisions. Gladwell clearly states his opinion, “The best we can do, I think, is try to puzzle out the right mix of conscious and unconscious analysis on a case-by-case basis” (269). We need to know what goes on inside our minds so that we can make solid judgments and know when to think and when to react without thinking.
This book opened my eyes to many things. I found the studies fascinating and informative. The theory of thin-slicing is definitely something I’m going to try to use in my daily life, slowing things down and really paying attention. I believe there is a lot to be learned about what guides my choices and molds my snap judgments.
This book is very relevant to the world of work. Business today moves faster than ever before. Information shoots back and forth at lightning speeds thanks to the progress that’s been made in communications technology. It’s vital that business people know how to read their own minds and are aware of some of the biases that may be involved in instinctual judgments that they make. There are so many times in business when you need to make urgent decisions and don’t have the luxury of time to contemplate.
Another area where this book’s insight would be valuable is human resources/hiring. The sections on hidden prejudices serve as an invaluable reminder that we may have firm beliefs, but there are stereotypes hidden within our unconscious mind. It is good practice to be aware that how you are behaving, your body language, will affect how the potential employee will behave during an interview. Even if what is being said is benign, our faces show everything. Gladwell words it perfectly: “The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process” (208).
The quote at the beginning of this paper shows the attitude we must take when dealing with business in the twenty-first century. You have to possess the ability to make solid judgments in minimal time. Business decisions made now have an extremely large impact on society as a whole, directing the world down whatever path it goes. If the decision makers are able to look inside and see what makes them tick they will make better choices. Business today has a social responsibility, just as every person has a social responsibility. Gladwell leaves us by clearly defining the weight that is on our shoulders, “It is not enough simply to explore the hidden recesses of our unconscious. Once we know about how the mind works – and about the strengths and weaknesses of human judgment – it is our responsibility to act” (276). So one last time I quote this author, “Judgment matters: it is what separates winners from losers” (260).
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. 2005. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, B