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To Think or to Blink?

(Editor’s Note: Should Hamlet be living with us now and reading bestsellers, he might be wondering: To Blink or not to Blink? To Think or not to Think? We are pleased to present, as part of our ongoing Author Speaks Series, an article by Blind SpotsMadeleine Van Hecke, author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. In it, she offers the “on the other hand” to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink argument.)

To Think or to Blink?

– By Madeleine Van Hecke, PhD

Is thoughtful reflection necessarily better than hasty judgments?

Not according to Malcolm Gladwell who argued in his best-selling book, Blink, that the decisions people make in a blink are often not only just as accurate, but MORE accurate, than the conclusions they draw after painstaking analysis.

So, should we blink, or think?

When we make judgments based on a thin slice of time  a few minutes talking with someone in a speed dating situation, for example are our judgments really as accurate as when we analyze endless reams of data?

Gladwell says sure  that’s why Blink is called the power of thinking without thinking. Gladwell tells some compelling stories to demonstrate that power, including his opening gambit about the Greek kouros sculpture that two experts accurately detected as a fake within a few moments perusal, after months of scientific testing had deemed it genuine.

But Gladwell’s own examples show that people are most likely to be correct in their blink judgments when they are like the two art experts when their judgments rest on a mother lode of background experience or information. So a blink judgment might serve you well at those times but the rest of the time, you need to slow down in order to avoid the blind spots that can trip up even the smartest people. In my book, Blind Spots, I suggest tactics to help one make better decisions because they help sidestep the pitfalls that our blind spots keep us from seeing.

While some “blink” decisions can be on target when they’re based on our expertise, they don’t always serve us well, for two reasons. First, because in highly-charged, emotional situations  such as when a police officer becomes suspicious of someone and fears danger  blink decisions can result in tragedy. Gladwell acknowledges this he notes that some police departments have adopted one-officer squad cars. Why? Because an officer alone will act more slowly, often wait for back-up. This delays the time between becoming suspicious and taking action, and it apparently reduces the number of inaccurate blink-decisions that officers make.

In Blind Spots, I point out that failing to stop and think is a blind spot  we don’t think because we don’t recognize this is a situation in which I really need to step back from what’s going on and figure out what to do. As a result we shoot off an e-mail that we later regret, or exuberantly embrace a flawed marketing plan. Every time you have ever said I realize now, you’re recognizing an earlier time where you failed to stop and think.

The second reason that expert blink decisions can go astray is because sometimes our very expertise blinds us to new, more creative perspectives. Why, for example, did people design early train cars with no central aisles, and with brakes that had to be operated by a conductor seated outside, on top of the train car  a dangerous practice? Because these early cars were almost exact replicas of what the expert designers were most familiar with the stagecoach. So our expertise can sometimes trap us.

Now, I think intuition is important, and one of the good things about Blink is that it’s kind of a corrective book, one that celebrates the value of intuitive thinking and pokes fun a bit at careful, analytic reasoning. But Blink oversimplifies the issue. Blind Spots reflects more deeply on the tension between analytic thought and intuition. It’s a mistake to enthrone logic as the sole and sure-fire way to Truth, but it’s also a mistake to blithely accept every whim as inspired. A better slogan might be Don’t believe everything that you think. The strategies in Blind Spots help you figure out what you should and shouldn’t believe.

Some of the stories that Gladwell tells are testimony to the mystery of our minds, and I absolutely agree that our minds often work in mysterious ways. But that mystery goes way beyond the nature of intuition. Take the evidence that children can be incredibly logical in their thinking. One three-year-old girl was being teased by her Aunt, who was nibbling at the child’s toes and threatening I’m going to eat you up No! said the little girl, I’m going to eat you up! Aha, said the Aunt, but I’m bigger than you, so I’ll eat you up first. Uh-uhretorted this youngster: because I’ll eat your mouth first. The logic of this preschooler is quite breathtaking. How did she do that?

On the other hand, there’s also research that raises the opposite question: the How could anyone be so dumb? question. Some studies, for example, show that intelligent adults consistently make mistakes in reasoning. How do you explain that? To me, the apparent stupidity of adults the enigma of why smart people do dumb things is a puzzle to be solved.

Smart people do dumb things because our minds work FOR us  80 or 90 percent of the time. But the rest of the time they work against us: they create blind spots that trip us up. Some of these blind spots are familiar to us, like my-side bias – not seeing another point of view. One smart fellow told me what he did to get a squirrel out of his basement. He opened a window, piled up some planks and boxes to create a road, and set down a trail of nuts, ending with a heap on the patio. Now that MIGHT have been a smart thing to do – but it could have backfired. Because that trail went both ways  possibly leading the troublesome squirrel out of the basement, but possibly leading other squirrels INTO the basement. Some smart plans fail because of my-side bias. Forgetting that there’s another point of view is one of the natural blind spots that work against us.

It takes some time, it takes some effort it takes more than a blink  but paying attention to your Blind Spots can help you think more critically and more creatively.

Madeleine Van HeckeMadeleine Van Hecke, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, consultant, and author. She is the author of Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (Prometheus Books, Inc., 2007).

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4 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    “Is thoughtful reflection necessarily better than hasty judgments(sic)?

    Not according to Malcolm Gladwell who argued in his best-selling book, Blink, that the decisions people make in a blink are often not only just as accurate, but MORE accurate, than the conclusions they draw after painstaking analysis.”

    Er, did you read ‘Blink’ and particularly the last half of the book before you wrote this article?

    At least you pay some passing lip service to Gladwell’s actual point, but most of this article seems to be less of an argument against Gladwell and more of an argument with Artie McStrawman.

    Too bad, as I’m sure you’re making some valid points and are an intelligent person, but your style of argument has really lost me as a potential reader.

  2. To me, Blink’s main point is that often our seat of the pants decisions are as good as, or better than, analytical thinking. Gladwell’s second important points are that intuitive decisions are most likely to be correct a) when we’re not under great emotional stress and 2) when those decisions are essentially based on “implicit” knowledge, especially “expert” knowledge that is derived from a great deal of experience in a particular field. Gladwell also agrees that there are times when our quick decisions lead to terrible results. The major criticism I have of Gladwell is that he never comes to grips with the question: When should you take more time to think and analyze, and when might it be crucial to stop and think? How would you know when to trust those intuitions? He promises to help readers become better at intuitive thinking, but the only advice Blink has about that is to avoid making quick decisions in intensely emotional situations, and (this one is more implied that stated) to increase your expertise so that you’ll have that base of expert knowledge to inform your intuitions. I really enjoyed Blink; Gladwell is a great storyteller who can take sometimes dry research and translate it into interesting tidbits, and as I said I think Blink is an excellent antidote to the attitude that logically-minded people sometimes have in which they denigrate any decisions not derived from a syllogism. But I stand by my main point which is that people need something more than encouragement to trust their intuitions while giving a passing nod to the pitfalls of quick decisions. What I’ve done in Blind Spots, which is a psychology self-help type of book to help people become better thinkers, is to provide that something more.

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hello Michael, my impression is that Madeleine did in fact read the book…so why don’t we just debate the case itself?

    I see the value in both Blink and Think, and see merit in helping people understand when to use each mode of decision-making, and how to sharpen both.

    Your thoughts?

  4. Barbara says:

    I was thinking more along the lines of the organic reasons for deciding quickly or for taking time to think. This decision is covered more in my post “Fight or Flight”.

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