Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

What if I told you that you could make some serious life decisions based on a few initial impressions or a 3-minute conversation? What if I claimed that some endeavors of yours have a better chance of success if you listened to the voice within you, instead of following a consciously constructed thought process? Well, you’d probably think I’m one of those mindfulness gurus trying to promote a new book titled “How to Clear Your Mind and Stop Thinking Once and For All”, with a free 3-week detox diet program on the side, and then you’d very politely -or less than politely- ask me to get a grip and go find a real job.

Perhaps this could give you a glimpse of my mindset as I started reading Malcold Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I started to have my doubts with the first few pages. Thankfully though the book consisted of a myriad of stories and examples to get its points across that I found it interesting enough not to toss it away after the first chapter.

The book starts with a story about a museum that was meaning to buy a supposedly ancient statue. The museum had conducted thorough examinations of the statue to determine whether it was authentic and the results came back that it was, and hence they acquired it for a huge sum of money. However, when experts came to take a look at the statue, several of them decided by just looking at it that it was a fake. And guess what? They were right.

So the question was: How did they know? And the basic answer was simply: Intuition. That was where I started to have doubts about what I was reading, because I had my own doubts about intuition, a word so elastic it could be used in a countless number of contexts. Who’s to say what is intuition and what is not? But above all, my distrust of is based on the fact that you cannot explain it or prove it, unlike informed and thoughtfully studied decisions.

However, it turned out there was more to intuition than I thought. The author got my undivided attention with 2 major points: 1- Intuition isn’t just that vague feeling you cannot explain, it’s actually the sum of your own experiences stored in your “adaptive unconscious”, telling you what you know before realizing that you know it. 2- Our instincts can betray us sometimes.

The book argues that sometimes less is more, meaning that the less information you have the more you are likely to make the right decision or to judge a situation correctly, because you are giving way to your adaptive unconscious to act using all the past experience of yours, and forcing too much information on it could confuse your mind and lead you to wrong decisions. One example was diagnosing heart attacks in people who complain of chest pain. ER doctors struggled with this for years, sending home people who turned out later on to be at risk of heart attacks and wasting valuable resources taking care of people who turned out to be at no risk at all. That was until a doctor called Lee Goldman developed the Goldman Algorithm which could recognize people with risk of heart attacks by using only 3 major risk factors. At first the doctors rejected it, thinking it was preposterous to depend on such little information to decide whether a person was having a heart attack as opposed to a thorough cross examination by a real doctor. However, the algorithm was tested for two years and it turned out that it guessed right 95% of the time, while the doctors guessed right between 75% and 89% of the time, hence it was adopted in ER’s, saving time and money as well as lives.

Be that as it may, Gladwell makes it clear that some matters require long and hard conscious thinking, but the value of rapid cognition is most vital in situations where time is a luxury you don’t have, and a snap judgment – based on enough training on rapid cognition – can save the day. But is that always the case?

Unfortunately, sometimes this very intuition could lead us astray. The thing is it often happens that our own fears or desires could disguise as intuition. I suppose we’ve all been there, being so afraid of doing something new that we almost quit, or when something was so unfamiliar that we it took us some time to accept. Take fashion for example. Let’s say there’s a new trend and some people are brave enough to try it, but everyone else thinks it’s ugly. A few weeks later, everyone thinks it looks good and you see people everywhere dressed in that particular fashion trend. It might seem that people are following an ugly trend just because it’s in fashion, but the truth is that it was never ugly, it was just weird and unfamiliar, and part of our brain defense-mechanisms is to resist the unfamiliar.

But there’s something else that’s equally if not more serious than that: Our unconscious biases. As you know, we are the products of our environment and experiences, and no matter how much we resist being influenced by society or the media, it all seeps into our unconscious mind one way or another and we end up with biases we are unaware of, associating certain things with negative or positive attributes.

Let me give you a personal experience as a case in point.

There was that one time when I was walking down the street alone and I saw a black guy coming from the opposite direction, and I automatically felt afraid for a moment because I could put myself in check. I was ashamed of myself, and surprised too. I never thought of myself as a racist person and I despised racism more than anything else, but what was that? Does that mean I’m a racist?

Now, years after that incident I found the answer within the pages of this book. All those years of watching black people depicted as delinquents on TV and movies and living in a fundamentally racist world must have their toll.

Now, does that mean we should just accept those biases and live with them? Not at all, for as Gladwell puts it: “Just because something is outside of awareness does not mean it’s outside of control”. Actually, identifying those unconscious biases is the first step towards putting them to rest.

Another important thing the book discussed is the Warren Harding Error. It was called that in reference to Warren Harding, one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States, who was elected mainly because of his physically imposing looks and strong rumbling voice which made him look like he would make a great leader, which proved to be a bar too high for him during his short presidency. It’s simply the act of judging people based on outer appearance, and as you probably know we have no shortage of that in our society or any society for that matter. I remember reading once that men act nicer to women who look beautiful, and I don’t think it’s always done consciously. Moreover, in my opinion, I think  many cases of “love at the first sight” could be actually big fat Warren Harding errors.

This is a book about basic human psychology. From relationships to wars, it sheds light on why we do what we do and how, and why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Actually, it made me think how much time and effort and even lives could be saved if psychologists were given a bigger part in law enforcement or airport security for example. As I mentioned earlier, the book keeps you interested through a story after another to get the point across instead of long, rigid lectures, all the while introducing you to famous figures in the world of psychology  whose work and effort were the building blocks for this book.


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