Rapid Cognition: Tool or Trap?
You walk into a room. You meet a new person. Within seconds, even fractions of a second, your mind leaps to conclusions. You know that the people in the room were arguing; you know that the person you're meeting is kind and warm. How? Gut instincts? Intuition? Hunches? Or is it something else? In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the power of "thinking without thinking." How does rapid cognition work - and can you make it work for you?
A Friendly Bet
Let's play a game. In front of you are two decks of red cards and two decks of blue cards. Draw one: you either win or lose money. Your goal, naturally, is to maximize your winnings. After 50 draws, you prefer blue but don't know why. After 80, you realize that red offers big rewards and big penalties, while blue offers both modest wins and losses. Your cognition doesn't sound so rapid, does it?
But consider this: after just 10 draws, your body begins to react. Your stress response is triggered; your palms begin to sweat. You've figured out the game - long before your brain has.
The Science Behind "Thinking Without Thinking"
The experiment described above was carried out by University of Iowa researchers and clearly illustrates the two cognitive styles on which we rely. One is conscious, logical, and deliberate. This style like an old Buick: it's slow and it needs lots of fuel (i.e. information) to get anywhere. The second style is lightning fast and requires very little fuel. It operates under the radar in our subconscious. As Gladwell writes, "It's a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it's reaching conclusions."
Gladwell deliberately avoids using the word "intuition" in his book. He believes that in those first seconds, or milliseconds, we are thinking perfectly rationally. "It's thinking - it's just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously...."
The question is: what's going through our heads when we engage in rapid cognition, when we think without thinking, when we make snap judgments?
Thin-Slicing: Slicing Through Distraction
One of the tenants of Gladwell's book is that we can make quick, accurate decisions based on impressions, feelings, and details - and these decisions are better than those arrived at by people who deliberate and analyze extensively. Why?
Because we can "thin slice," or focus on a few important details while discarding the rest. We can spot patterns based on only a thin slice, or narrow window, of experience.
But does this really work? It did for cardiologists at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. They were instructed to gather less information on their patients. Who needs pesky details such as weight, age, and medical history? Instead, doctors focused on factors like blood pressure and ECGs. The results: the hospital dramatically improved diagnosis and reduced cost from misdiagnosed cardiac events. Less information; better decisions.
Thin-slicing is the rapid cognition that allows firefighters to evacuate a building seconds before it collapses and enables speed-daters to make a good choice for a second (and longer!) date. But rapid cognition is not infallible.
When Thin-Slicing Fails
Remember Warren Harding? It's forgivable if you don't. He's either regarded as one of the United States' most forgettable presidents - or one of its worst. Harding looked presidential though: tall, stately, strong. (Forget that he knew more about poker than diplomacy!) Snap judgements and rapid cognition led constituents to make a mistake of historic proportions.
As it did in 1999 when four New York City police officers shot and killed 22-year old Amidou Diallo. While cops depend on rapid cognition, it failed them in this instance. Diallo was not armed; the police saw him reach into his pocket for his wallet and thought that he was reaching for a gun.
Can You Improve Rapid Cognition?
When thin-slicing, or rapid cognition, fails, it does so because we're focusing on the wrong details. We're focusing on height, for instance, or race. Gladwell says that "we make Warren Harding Errors in all kinds of situations."
In Blink, Gladwell talks about a car salesman - he's not just good. He's about twice as good as the good salespeople. One of the secrets of his success? He never judges people by their appearance. One of his best customers is a coverall-clad farmer, with that fresh-from-the-field smell.
We have to acknowledge that we make these quick decisions, without thinking - but if we keep making bad decisions, we need to examine why. Are our biases getting in the way? Do we fail to adjust our experiences when we get new input?
Gladwell suggests that we need to acknowledge any factors that can bias or undermine rapid cognition. He writes, "[I]f we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition." Take charge of those first seconds - those first impressions - and you can make better decisions.Our brains naturally engage in rapid cognition. If we can help it emerge from the subconscious a bit, we may leverage "thinking without thinking" to make enhanced decisions at work and in life.