Can you make a good decision in a few seconds - as good as pondering the issue for weeks? Sometimes you can. That's the message of the immensely readable book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane, 2005).
Gladwell's previous book, The Tipping Point, is one of the best popularisations of social science in recent years.
In Blink, Gladwell uses numerous examples to show the power and risks in unconscious thought. For example, a total stranger can judge aspects of your personality by looking through your home for only half an hour - just as well as meeting with you for a lunch or a movie twice a week for a year.
Intuitive skills can also be developed. That's exactly what experts do. Experts in observing interpersonal behaviour - using a special coding system - can watch a couple having a personal conversation for a few minutes and then predict, with astounding accuracy, whether that couple's relationship will last.
Gladwell uses examples such as speed dating, selling cars, war gaming, Coke versus Pepsi, ergonomic seating and police shootings to illustrate points about unconscious thinking.
But sometimes rapid intuitive thinking has limitations. People who are completely unprejudiced at a conscious level may harbour unconscious biases. You can test yourself at www.implicit.harvard.edu. This is a bit frightening.
There are quite a few points in Blink that can be applied to academic work. The power of unconscious prejudice means that blind marking of essays is essential to avoid bias.
Gladwell gives examples showing that too much information sometimes can be harmful to decision making. Perhaps in developing our theoretical insights, we need to be careful not to be burdened by too much detail, so that our minds can grasp the essential structures.
Our attitudes are affected by unconscious priming. This suggests that we can improve our students' performance by suitable imagery and tasks.
As intellectual workers, most of us see ourselves operating largely in the conscious realm. That's our formal task when writing papers, for example. But there is a lot that takes place unconsciously, often with amazing power and speed but sometimes with dangerous misdirection. Understanding these dynamics can help us become more effective.
4 January 2006
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