Trust your gut, we like to say. Go with your instincts. At one time or another, most of us have experienced the rewards of following a hunch, an inner voice, a sense of intuitive “knowing.” On the other hand, most of us have also benefited from a certain amount of caution: Take some time to think it through, we counsel each other. Don’t jump to conclusions.
It turns out that when it comes to making decisions in the blink of an eye, there’s good reason for both enthusiasm and caution. When our snap decisions are right, they can save us time, money and heartache. When they’re off, the consequences can be disastrous. The trick lies in knowing when the benefits of “blink” thinking outweigh the risks, and in understanding how you can make the most of your own rapid-fire-thinking machinery – without having it blow up in your face.
A Two-Second History
The field of neuroscience has been exploring the workings of instinctive thinking since the 1950s. That’s when psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, discovered that contrary to prior belief, the right hemisphere of the brain (the nonverbal, creative side) handled certain kinds of high-level cognition.
Previously, scientists credited the left brain for most cognitive function. With Sperry’s work, though, it became evident that under certain circumstances, the linear, logical side of the brain depended on its more creative and intuitive right half to do a surprising amount of mental heavy lifting, much of it at lightning speed.
Now, social scientists and neurologists are exploring the ways in which instinctive right-brain thinking can work to our advantage, and why. The uses, misuses and mechanisms of such “rapid cognition” thinking are collected and laid out in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent, bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown and Company, 2005). We should be willing to rely on the brain’s instinctual decision making more often, Gladwell asserts, even though we may not understand precisely how it works.
Gladwell attributes much of instinctive decision making to “thin-slicing,” a psychological concept he describes as “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.”
Essentially, our subconscious mind is constantly picking up all sorts of seemingly inconsequential information and analyzing it based on previously stored information about similar knowledge or experiences – without our conscious mind even being aware of it. We may decide with our logical brains that more assessment and information gathering is called for, but in as little as two seconds, our brains have already parsed gigantic stores of known data and produced our so-called gut reactions.
“Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we’re faced with making a choice quickly and under stress,” according to Gladwell, “we’re using thin-slicing to make our instinctive evaluations.”
Explaining how or why we reach such conclusions, however, is seemingly impossible: Our rapid cognition, Gladwell explains, takes place behind a “locked door.” Just because it’s largely inexplicable, however, doesn’t make it less effective.
Consider the emergency room at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. “A few years ago [the staff there] changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks,” Gladwell writes at www.gladwell.com. “They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: They encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain – like blood pressure and the ECG – while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history.” What happened, he says, is that Cook County became one of the nation’s best hospitals for diagnosing chest pain and for accurately assessing whether a patient needs to be admitted immediately, kept for observation or sent home.
The less-is-more approach at Cook County Hospital offers an important insight into how you can refine your blink-thinking abilities. Taking in too much information (in this case, less relevant data about weight, age and medical history) caused doctors to make less-effective diagnoses. When we blink under the wrong influences – prejudice, cultural stereotypes or ingrained fears – our judgments can quickly go from bad to worse.
Interested in making the most of your thin-slicing abilities? You can start by avoiding some common pitfalls. In Blink, Gladwell uncovers a handful of surprisingly consistent examples in contexts as disparate and diverse as car sales, police work, hospital administration and firefighting. Paying more attention to the following traps, wherever they might occur in your own life, might improve your ability to think fast without making errors of judgment.
- Check your prejudices. What assumptions do you make, or what biases do you have, that might get in the way of making the best decision? A classic example is that of the car dealer who takes one look at a potential customer and decides, based on his manner of dress, that he couldn’t possibly afford a new car – only to lose the sale to someone else who asks enough questions to determine the customer is not only qualified, but eager to buy.
- Avoid overconfidence. If you’re certain that you know what will happen next, or how someone will behave, you may overlook important information that’s clueing you in to the contrary. We tend to see what we expect to see, and to ignore data that doesn’t conform to our preconceived notions of “how things are.”
- Avoid information overload. Endlessly gathering information and processing too many details can cloud the big picture that your instinctive thinking has already painted for you, as amply demonstrated by the case of the Cook County Hospital docs.
- Notice anomalies. What’s not happening may be a warning that something is “off” in a situation. Gladwell describes firefighters battling what they thought was a routine kitchen fire, who escaped only a moment before the floor collapsed. The fire department commander later explained that he’d ordered his team out because something had seemed off: The fire was too quiet, and hotter than he’d expected it to be. Although his conscious mind didn’t register the details at the time, the reason for the too-quiet, too-hot kitchen fire was that the real inferno was beneath them, in the basement.Certainly, instinctive, rapid-cognition thinking has its liabilities, but Gladwell’s research suggests that it’s possible to shape our seemingly impulsive decision-making abilities to improve our odds of making a “smart” split-second decision. High performers, he notes, succeed by using deliberate, left-brain thinking to evaluate, hone and then apply their instinctive right-brain thoughts to best advantage.When we continually refine our thin-slicing skills through logical and deliberate thinking, Gladwell believes, our instincts become far more reliable, and thus, far more valuable. We can then put our intuitive decisions to proper use – for our own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Elizabeth Kadetsky is a freelance writer in New York City.