Monday, May 08, 2006

Rapid Cognition and quick decision making

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's phenomenal and brilliant book titled "Blink" - easily the most enjoyable non-fiction book I've read since the Tipping Point. Yes, I know it's been around for quite a while and I've read it quite late, but I managed to make time to read it only now :P

Not only did this book give me a fascinating insight into the way we make decisions, it also made me think about some of the relatively important snap decisions I've made in my life so far - from important ones like choosing a house and a car to not so important ones like choosing a new unfamiliar dish at a restaurant.

What is "Blink" about?

It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

You could also say that it's a book about intuition, except that I don't like that word. In fact it never appears in "Blink." Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings - thoughts and impressions that don't seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It's thinking - its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with "thinking." In "Blink" I'm trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?

Thin-slicing is a new term I learnt, which is a 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. And this is what I found that I could really relate to - from complex and important decisions to pretty mundane ones, it's not always that we examine and logically disect the information in front of us and come to a decision - doing that just creates information overload.

To quote Malcolm Gladwell on his book, this is a paragraph that I felt really summarizes the intent of the book, and made my level of respect for the author go a grade higher.
"The Tipping Point" was concerned with grand themes, with figuring out the rules by which social change happens. "Blink" is quite different. It is concerned with the smallest components of our everyday lives--with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. I think its time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments. I think that if we did, it would change the way wars are fought, the kind of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted and on and on--and if you combine all those little changes together you end up with a different and happier world.

There have been reams of blog posts, reviews and quotes on this book, all available on the net, but don't get excited over all the hype. At the end of the day, the book is just a perspective on an interesting, everyday phenomenon we've all experienced :) That said, even if you're not interested in marketing or information architecture or websites (in my opinion, there are far-reaching implications for all of those fields), go ahead, buy/beg/borrow/steal this book and read it, because you can infer implications from it that will affect your life and work.


Abhijit Nadgouda said...

Yes, it is an excellent book. In fact, reading this book led me to do some more conscious reading on the subconscious :-).

Charles said...

I'm reading Blink right now, it's very fascinating.

Charles said...

I'm reading Blink right now, it's very fascinating.