Blink and Rapid Cognition



I recently finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I spent considerable time going through the book; I am totally fascinated by the human brain and human behavior.  It is by no means a hard read—it reads like a great novel—but it is quite compelling and I saw it as a launching pad to do some further reading human decision-making, facial expressions and emotion, behavior and affect, etc.  Blink is about rapid cognition, and making decisions in a blink of an eye.  We all make snap judgments every day, but how well-informed are they, and do they serve us most of the time?

Gladwell explains the concept of thin-slicing, which is the ability of our subconscious mind to pick up on patterns (and anomalies), situations, and behavior based upon “very narrow slices of experience.”  All this processing takes place behind a locked door, he explains, and it is an “automated, accelerated unconscious version” of cognitive processing, which occurs consciously.  Since we cannot unlock the door, all we can do is carefully program the subconscious mind with experiences that uphold whatever we consciously believe to be true.  It is like what Gavin De Becker talks about in the Gift of Fear—informing our intuition, which can be done through the right training, experience and mental exercises.  Sometimes, under duress and/or time pressure, the subconscious mind will spit out a response based on whatever is familiar, which can be something totally stereotypical—something which you may not even consciously uphold.

The key to good rapid decision-making (with more favorable results) is frugality.  In all the stories he related, where snap judgments were spot-on, the expert decision-makers edited information, and used very little of it to find patterns quickly.  Notice I used the word “expert”.  These are people who have gained much wisdom based on years and years of experience, and have learned how to accurately interpret whatever comes out of that locked room, or little black box of the mind.  Experts have depth of understanding, vastly different from knowledge.  We are living in the information age, and knowledge is more readily accessible than it probably ever was in history, but does it follow that people, as a whole, know how to apply it?  Knowledge, in and of itself, is not power.  Knowing how to apply it really IS powerful.  I am reminded of Brian Willis’ discussion on competency, and how trainers must move towards becoming unconscious competent articulates: performing skills unconsciously, which is most efficient, and having the ability to explain those actions after the fact.  Obviously, the information that is gathered for rapid cognition has to be the right information—being able to zero in on pertinent details and discarding irrelevant information is the mark of true proficiency as it relates to good, fast decision-making in any field of endeavor.

Early on in the text, I was already contemplating how thin-slicing/rapid cognition applies to the realm of self-protection.  Obviously, in a lethal encounter, you don’t have the time or wherewithal (due to the effects of survival stress) to process very much with your conscious mind.  Gladwell explains that both high arousal and time pressure can cause serious breakdowns in judgment.  Training and experience help us to develop and hone our decision-making powers when stakes are high, and when we have very little time or experience from which to “extract meaningful information.”  He discusses Gavin De Becker’s process of stress-inoculation in training his operatives, so that they may eventually function in high-stress situations with relatively low heart rates and achieve better reaction times (De Becker’s company runs security operations to protect high-profile people).  Though it is not discussed in this book, I have read in many sources about Olympic athletes performing their events in their minds, prior to competition, including as much sensory information as possible to make the experience real to their minds—the subconscious mind really does not understand the difference.  Never underestimate the power of imagination!  Brian Willis talks about using imagination towards ANYTHING, including your own healing, in learning new skills, in preparing for dangerous encounters (as experienced by police officers, first responders, etc.).

Here are some of my favorite thoughts from the text:

“Every moment—every blink— is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.”

“Judgment makes all the difference in winning and losing.”

“When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons.  In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.  In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”—Sigmund Freud 

My thoughts on this book, and its implications, are not fully formed yet.  However, it has led me to some other interesting books, like Sources of Power, by Gary Klein, which is a study on how people in professions with extreme time pressure make decisions; and Unmasking the Face, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, which is about reading emotions through facial expressions.  Anything I can read to increase my understanding and inform my training and coaching is a good thing!



  1. Sounds like a good book.

  2. Cool site, love the info.

    • Thank you so much, Bill. We really appreciate you visiting our blog!

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