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Blink: Understanding the Science of Thinking

JPierre's picture

Thinking is a basic function that occurs almost involuntary millions of times a day. However, there is vast scientific research that goes into understanding the basic functions of how and why we think the way we do.

In recent years, authors have taken different approaches to understanding the science of thinking, and what factors frame our thought processes. In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell authored Blink, a critical and public success, and used rapid cognition as a platform for using the human mind and its decision making process.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 bestselling book Blink spans several research disciplines, including biology, behavioral psychology and neuroscience. This influential work on how and why we make decisions provides many grounds for discussion and understanding how the human thought process works.

Gladwell delves into the area of rapid cognition, which is a rapid-fire decision-making that happens without thinking about how you are thinking. Gladwell’s primary theory is that reliable, accurate decisions are often made very, very quickly, and usually as an internal, intuitive response. He hypothesized that the brain “thin slices” by comprehensively analyzing a situation and garners the information necessary to make a correct decision. This action is done subconsciously and instantaneously. And, our thin slices can often be triggered as a response to our environment or others. Essentially, thin slicing is our thought process in its purest, natural, and most intuitive state. When thin slicing is performed, it can often yield more correct outcomes than we when use logic to inform our decision making.

While highly accurate, thin slicing cannot be induced or summoned at will. It usually occurs in the unconscious areas of the brain. For example, as we examine an object or a situation we do not know what our unconscious mind knows, or what part it has played in formulating a decision.

However, thin slicing is a powerful tool of the brain and Gladwell uses several examples to illustrate its potency and accuracy. In one example, a group of ordinary people are brought into a college dorm room. They are there to observe the room, its content, and its character. The group has fifteen minutes to perform its observations. At the end of the fifteen minutes, the group more accurately describes the room owner’s personality than his friends, who have known him for significantly longer period of time (Gladwell, pg. 34).

Another elucidating example of thin slicing comes from a group of researchers observing married couples. The husband and wives participating in the study were directed to hold conversations about mundane, everyday activities, such as their work, and household activities. The couples were videotaped during these conversations, which was not the typical ground breaking fare that would normally be indicative of marital distress or potential pitfalls for the couples.
The research team directing the study analyzed the footage and imagined an entirely different story. By incorporating changes in gestures, expressions both verbal and facial, and observing shifts in body language, the researchers began devising a preliminary system to detect marital problems. As the study continued and the system was refined, researchers shortened the time in which it took to detect marriages with potential for distress. For example, researches viewing only seconds of a couple’s conversation could predict the longevity of the couple’s marriage with great accuracy (Gladwell, pg. 39 – 43).

Both the dorm room and couple examples demonstrate an innate human ability to analyze without analyzing, which reinforces the premise that time and over-analysis does not improve our ability to correctly gauge a situation. In both instances, complete strangers spent minimal time analyzing a situation or person, yet they were able to make accurate assessments.

While Blink covers other areas of the decision making process, including factors that skew perception, the role of prejudice, and judgment, thin slicing stands out as a powerful tool that is often unexplored when discussing the biology of thinking. More than just simple intuition or an emotional reaction to outside stimuli, thin slicing introduces the notion that time and over analyzing often works against us when formulating decisions. Moreover, our brains are incredible “readers” of environment and can often instantaneously process and predict accurate outcomes using little, if any time. And, if we reach a quick realization without often understanding how or why we arrived at the decision, those thoughts should not be discounted as there is a whole process that our brain initiates to reach that realization (but is unbeknownst to us).

I found this book particularly interesting, as I believe that it touches on themes discussed in class, particularly the themes of subjectivity and observations. So many times we tend to ignore our innate ability and preliminary observations because no one has ever told us that they are “right’, however these preliminary thoughts and judgments stem from many histories and experiences with which we have encountered and form who we are. Thus, instead of discounting these thoughts, we need to realize that they can be a product of our mind (in combination with our experiences) working in its purest form.


1. Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company; Time Warner Book Group. 2005.

2. Brooks, David, “'Blink': Hunch Power”. The New York Times. 16 Jan. 2005: Sunday Book Review.