Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Successful decision making relies on a balance between instinctive thinking in the first two seconds, and deliberate consideration. Extra information can hinder because complex relationships have identifiable underlying patterns that our brain subconsciously follows.

Instantaneous decisions

Snap decisions can be more reliable than cautious, deliberate decisions. Allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves enables rapid cognition.

Gary Klein studied decision makers with high-pressure jobs and found that experts do not systematically compare all available options. By considering the whole scenario, experience allows accurate decisions without detailed justification. Known examples include:

  • Gamblers figuring out games before they realise they have (sweat response)
  • WW2 code interceptors identifying the source of encrypted radio messages from characteristic tapping
  • Art critics judging authenticity, flaws became “flocks of hummingbirds popping in and out dozens of way stations”

Spontaneity is not innate, it takes practice. A good improviser sees possibilities for amusing stories where untrained performers would be stuck.

John Gottmann analysed marital conversations in slices to identify instances of defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt (the Four Horsemen). From these he could predict how the relationship would progress. He found contempt was the most dangerous and, for a marriage to survive, there must be five instances of positive emotion to every one instance of negative emotion. After analysing hundreds of couples, he could listen to a nearby couple and make an accurate snap-judgement on their future together.

The power of priming

With split second decisions we are vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe. Priming to a smart state of mind before answering Trivial Pursuit resulted in 55.6% success when students thought about professorship for five minutes, and 42.6% when students thought about hooliganism.

We are blinded by beauty and good looks (height/clothes/grooming) and this blindness causes us to overlook important character flaws and opportunities. It is important to take charge of the first two seconds by priming the subconscious to make a snap decision without unwanted biases. Salesmen fight this ‘Warren Harding’ effect to increase sales — a dowdy shopper may be the best customer. Orchestras combat bias against performers by auditioning behind a curtain, this has addressed gender imbalance.

Harvard Implicit is a Computerized IAT (Implicit Association Test) that reveals biases from instantaneous judgements. IATs can be affected by priming: a student went from negative to positive association with black individuals after watching the Olympics that morning.

Surprising judgements

More choice does not result in more motivation to purchase. Schwartz provided evidence for this in his essay The Paradox of Choice: when consumers were presented with 24 varieties only 3% of individuals purchased a jar, but when there were only six varieties 30% of taste-testers purchased a jar.

Package and product merge into one. Presenting ice cream in a round container produces a taste improvement comparable to increasing the size of the chocolate chips.

People do not sue doctors they like. Doctors who were never sued spent 3 minutes more with their patients and were more likely to use orienting comments (first we will examine you), active listening and humour. The information provided to patients was the same.

Human responses

Our face conveys our state of mind. We have all had the experience where people comment “What’s wrong?” without us consciously trying to communicate. Without unconscious signals of our authentic feelings, friendships and closeness would not occur as people would conceal their emotions.

We respond optimally to stress when our heart beats between 115 and 145 times per minute. Above 145 bpm complex motor skills break down and at 175 bpm there is an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing as the mid-brain takes over. You cannot have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being who has lost access to their higher-functions – “A dog in the hunt doesn’t stop to scratch its fleas.”

Accounting for actions

Only experts are able to reliably account for their reactions. Judy Heylmun explains créme brûlée is the test of any restaurant because of the quality of the vanilla.


See also