Gladwell says trust your instant judgement but also beware

Some insights for educators


Malcolm Gladwells book ‘ Blink’ is about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye.

There is part of your brain that deals with processing information in a very short period of time. Its pretty efficient. Gladwell describes the part of the brain that makes these snap decisions as the adaptive unconscious. Quite often when we have to make a very quick ‘instant’ decision it turns out to be  the right one . Gladwell argues, with evidence, that this is no accident. The brain can instantly process information and on the basis of few observable facts come to a good, perhaps life -saving decisions.  But the snap judgments we make rely on the “thinnest slices” of experience we can get. They are unconscious processes, which is why it can be frustrating that we cannot even describe why we feel or act a certain way when prompted by a stimulus. Indeed, Gladwell believes that it is often detrimental to our judgments if we try to describe or articulate  what is happening within our unconscious.

This is in contrast to the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” We have access to lots of information, we weigh the information, and options  and then we  reach a rational conclusion. We live  in a society dedicated to the idea that we’re always better off gathering as much information and intelligence we can  and spending as much time as possible in deliberation before reaching a ‘rational’ conclusion. But in many areas of decision-making less can be more.  For example a doctor seeking to diagnose whether a patient is having a heart attack needs just four key  pieces of information to maximise the chances of an accurate diagnosis. The more detail they have on a patient, paradoxically  the less likely they are to make a correct diagnosis. Indeed information overload presents challenges elsewhere.  If you give consumers too much information on a product or too many choices they are less likely to purchase.   The message is that too much information can clutter the brain and make decision-making more difficult and error prone.  There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology–“the power of thin slicing”–which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience.  Many people are very good at thin slicing.  An art expert who defies scientists  and experts from  the Getty Museum to claim, correctly,  that an ‘ancient ‘ Greek statue is actually  a fake just on the basis of a quick glance . Gladwell tries not to talk about intuition here, because its more than that. And  he argues that  trying to help people distinguish their good rapid cognition from their bad rapid cognition is   possible . You can actually be trained to ensure that your rapid cognition is made more reliable.

Bad rapid cognition happens when you are predisposed towards thinking something because of the environment or culture  within which you work influences your sub-conscious prejudices. We must be aware that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. Few people believe they are racially prejudiced  but if they are subjected to quick fire computerised questions some of their prejudices are revealed.

People once thought, in the world of classical music ,and not so long ago, that women couldn’t play the French Horn, trombone or various  other ‘manly’ instruments. Those on selection committees, or sometimes just the conductor of the  respective orchestra, would audition women playing these instruments but would rarely if ever rate them highly.  Why? Because they were predisposed to think that women couldn’t play  the instruments and were allowing their sight to trump their listening , musical and aesthetic judgement. When they started putting screens between the selectors and the auditionees then the world of classical music was duly  transformed and the stereotypes ditched.

Blink makes readers think about those first impressions we make every day, and learn to trust them. It is also important, however, to know when to stop and think about a judgment you are making so that you do not get confused by stereotypes and mistaken “mind reading.” Blink tells readers that it is important to trust the unconscious and to not always try to explain what is going on when we react in a situation.

Is this relevant to education? Yes, it would seem so. It has an obvious relevance, for example, to interviewing, selection and admission processes, possibly testing too. There is a process called Priming which influences that Blink moment. Priming is a process that goes on within the adaptive unconscious that can in effect change the way you think. Priming refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli, due to prior experience. Priming it is believed occurs outside of conscious awareness. In short  you can be encouraged ,using various stimuli, to think and react in certain predictable ways.

Gladwell mentions the study of two Dutch researchers who had several groups of students each answer forty-two Trivial Pursuit questions. This is where the ‘Priming’ comes in. Half were asked to take five minutes to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write it down, while the other half were asked to do the same with soccer hooligan in place of professor. The students who thought about professors ended up getting 55.6 percent of the questions correct, while the soccer group got 42.6 percent correct. Statistically this is a huge margin.  The groups had been selected on the basis that they were of similar intelligence and ability. So the professor group wasn’t any smarter than the soccer group, but they were put in a “smart” mind frame before answering the questions. So they did better.

Another arresting piece of research used black college students and twenty questions from the Graduate Record Examination, the standard test used for entry into graduate school.  The students were asked to identify their race on a pre-test questionnaire. That simple act was sufficient, it transpires, to prime them with all the negative stereotypes  associated with African Americans and  their academic under achievement and the number of items they got right was cut in half . It suggests that Black students are primed to underachieve.

It is not hard to see, given this information and research, the importance that psychology and understanding how the brain works can play in education and selection processes.

Blink-The Power of Thinking without Thinking-Malcolm Gladwell 



  1. I think Gladwell’s point is that it’s not ‘thinking’ that takes place in the blink of an eye – it’s an altogether different intelligence, or a combination of two or more intelligences that have nothing to do with intellect and rational thought.

    I agree with you completely about the importance of understanding how the brain works, and it’s true that Gladwell’s book draws attention to the fact that logical reasoning is only one brain function among many. It’s also important to recognise that we all have (and hopefully use) several different intelligences, which are all important to our survival and wellbeing.

    Instinctual intelligence, social intelligence (which functions through empathy) and spiritual intelligence (which functions through intuition) are all hard-wired into our brains but need to be developed and nurtured through education and training if we are to derive maximum benefit from them. The power of imagination is also within us all. Regrettably a school system that worships intellect and rationality and neglects other types of intelligence does none of us any favours in the long run. It’s a sad fact that our system, on the whole, fails to offer teachers insights into our three dimensions of intelligence, and fails to stress the importance of valuing and developing all of our six intelligences equally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s