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When Making Decisions, is Less More?

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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When Making Decisions, is Less More?

Perrin Braun

Blink, written by Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker. This book essentially scrutinizes the thinking that happens in the "blink of an eye," on how we tend to make some judgments and conclusions within split seconds. Gladwell stresses how these instinctive assumptions are oftentimes much more accurate than those which are highly contested and deliberated. However, this book is about more than mere intuition, for "rapid cognition" is extremely quick thinking, as opposed to an instinct.

Essentially, this book attempts to make sense of what is going on in our brains in those quick few seconds of thinking that conclude with seemingly arbitrary judgments.
Gladwell mentions in his book how American society is steeped deliberation—in the army, in the workforce, and in the government. Readers might initially be incredulous as to the validity of snap judgments, but on closer inspection, high pressure and stressful situations can sometimes be helpful in making decisions that avoid extensive rationalization and time consumption. He gives the example of the Emergency Room Unit at
Cook County Hospital in Chicago and the means in which the doctors changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. Doctors were instructed to gather less information from their patients and just focus and three critical pieces of data instead of extraneous statistics. The result was that Cook County Hospital became one of the best hospitals in the nation of predicting heart attacks. However, it proved to be extremely difficult to convince physicians of the benefits of this theory because they were dedicated to the (not altogether illogical) concept that more information is preferable. Blink works to change this conception, for it stresses the "power of thin slicing;" a term in psychology that postulates that we have the tendency to make intelligent decisions that are based on the thinnest slice of information.

However, "thin slicing" can have its disadvantages. Gladwell mentions the example of how almost all Fortune 500 companies are controlled by men who are above-average height. Though there is no correlation between height and intelligence, tall people tend to be chosen for leadership roles over shorter people with better credentials. This is an instance of poor "thin slicing," in which tall individual are chosen for leadership roles because people are predisposed towards thinking that they are more dominant and effective leaders. However, in other situations, rapid cognition is a powerful tool in getting to know a person. In situations like dating, everyone can attest to the importance of first impressions. Yet, Gladwell asserts that you can most likely ascertain more information from a date by merely looking around his/her room for fifteen minutes than by talking to them. In another example, he mentions the "Warren Harding Effect," whereby moments of high visual arousal make us susceptible to focus on the wrong clues. In this instance, Warren Harding was voted President on account of appearing to be presidential (ie handsome and extremely charismatic), but many historians agree that he was one of the worst Presidents in American history due to his lack of political experience.

Essentially, Blink is concerned with the minutest aspects of our daily lives, from the origin of our first impressions to our split-second decisions. The goal of Gladwell's book is basically to increase our awareness of our first impressions and how they can be conducive to conducting interviews, fighting wars, and counseling married couples. The problem with relying too much on "thin slicing," however, lies in the fact that you have to discern what type of information to keep. Our brains are able to function unconsciously and when our period of rapid cognition ends, the brain acquires a more obvious, but less correct, predictor of behavior. The key to rapid cognition is knowing what types of information to discard and what you can use to your advantage. The conclusion of Blink is therefore that we can train ourselves to make more informed decisions by actually processing less information. Although less input can sometimes be more beneficial to making an accurate split-second decision, that input has to be correct.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Blink, for it was an extremely fast read and the anecdotes made it particularly relevant to the general audience. It was extremely insightful and provided viable explanations as to why and how some individuals act a certain way. However, I get the suspicion that Blink is based more on speculation on the part of the author and various theorists than on scientific fact and Gladwell does not have a uniting theory that holds the anecdotes together. He encourages his readers to trust in their gut feelings, but then proceeds to describe how those instincts can sometimes be incorrect, so that he does not provide a tangible method for training yourself to think faster and more correctly. However, he does prove himself to be an excellent storyteller and if anything, Blink definitely encourages readers to scrutinize first impressions and second-guesses more carefully.