Instinct beats analysis, so think fast

Special to The Times

A cautionary note to all number crunchers, data evaluators and general information grinders everywhere: “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” may not be the book for you. But everyone else is likely to find it intoxicating, if not entirely affirming.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestselling “The Tipping Point,” now turns his considerable narrative gifts to how we make decisions, what kind of information we need to make them, and how much homework and preparation are required. The answer, seemingly, is that we’d all be better off to rely on snap judgments and first impressions. “Blink” is a valentine to those who make decisions on the fly -- the impulsive, the intuitive and the analytically challenged among us. After reading “Blink,” all those who take their time, evaluate options, make charts, read the research, surf the Web, simulate, and smugly pride themselves on preparation might end up feeling like fools. The rash decision, Gladwell contends, is not necessarily so rash, after all. Just because a decision is made quickly does not mean it is ill considered.

The central premise of “Blink” is as simple as its title: An instantaneous impression created in the brain might actually provide more useful, reliable information than hours of studied, rigorous, detailed analyses of data that cannot entirely be digested and, in the end, produce a great deal of noise and clutter that interfere with a more cognitively rapid, instinctively inspired decision.


Gladwell is an engaging writer and a first-rate tour guide. In “Blink,” he considers how we think, ultimately concluding: Perhaps we shouldn’t think so much. For Gladwell and the assortment of quirky, brilliant characters who populate his book and who demonstrate the power of the first glance, the mind is a supercomputer with split-second cognitive agility. Though the brain is capable of storing and analyzing vast amounts of data, he says too much deliberation and introspection -- particularly during times of stress and fast-moving crisis -- can be dangerous.

Along the way, we are introduced to decisions -- the election of President Warren G. Harding and the marketing failure of New Coke are two humorous examples -- that went bad even though all the available information suggested otherwise, as well as to people possessed with uncanny skills at sizing up a situation and rendering a judgment correctly and instantly, forgoing the benefit of charts, graphs and rational explanations. Gladwell applies these principles to war games, speed-dating, taste tests, mind and face readings, improvisational comedy, orchestra auditions, the diagnoses of heart attacks in emergency rooms, the policing of streets in high-crime neighborhoods and predictions of which marriages are likely to end in divorce.

The danger, of course, is that “Blink” will become the darling of psychics, ESP enthusiasts and those who must consult their Ouija boards before undertaking any life-altering decision. But Gladwell would argue that the phenomenon he calls “thin-slicing” is neither magical nor mystical, but rather entirely cognitive -- albeit performed rapidly and often unconsciously.

Somewhere in the human brain is the evolutionary survival skill to sum up the surrounding environment in seconds, he says. The more adapted they were to the environment, the better able humans became at understanding it, acquiring information as if hunting and gathering for food. But he contends that in decision-making, hoarding does not always lead to better judgments. Sometimes the first thing that pops into your head is all you need. Yet, without analysis, rigor and meticulous preparation, where would we be?

Gladwell discusses the chemistry shared by a group of savvy Wall Street traders and a group of three-star generals and Marines. The traders displayed natural skill at playing computer war games. Though the two groups had little else in common, their jobs required them to make big bets under rapid-fire, stressful conditions. The room overflowed with “blink” skills.

The key, the author says, is to deploy these faculties properly, watching out for biases and outside influences that might lead to misjudgments. What our mind processes and concludes in seconds can save us from making disastrous mistakes -- if we’re not imprisoned by indecision and the false reassurance of having too much data that would undermine our ability to see what can be gleaned in a blink.


Thane Rosenbaum is the author of “The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right” and the novel “The Golems of Gotham.”