Blink or Think?

Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.

When to make snap decisions and when to prefer reflections?

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking was published nearly 15 years ago. In it, he made a highly entertaining case for the surprising accuracy of snap intuitive judgments—by both experts and novices. This, in turn, led to a presumption that in many cases people should rely on their initial feelings when making decisions as opposed to thinking through the issues more carefully and slowly. In other words, people should “blink” rather than “think.”

The implications of Gladwell’s book were not well received by experts in decision making who favour a more structured, analytical approach. They argue that “blinking” would invite errors in decisions that can be eliminated by an approach based on “thinking” and therefore the latter should be preferred. In addition, thinking allows one to share information and thoughts when decisions are made together by different people.

In fact, in his book Gladwell did not state that one should always rely on blinking but gave some examples of situations where structured thinking works well. What was missing from Gladwell’s analysis, however, is a specification of the kinds of situations in which blinking or thinking is more appropriate.

One feature of intuitive snap judgments is that you are typically unaware of “how” you reached your evaluation. For example, imagine that you have just met a job candidate and have had an immediate positive reaction. That is, you sense that the candidate is good but would find it difficult to provide the rationale for that judgment. Nonetheless, you rely on that judgment in shaping how you ask your questions in the interview, so it is in fact quite consequential.

What is the origin of your intuitive judgment? Clearly, it is not an insight inherited at birth but instead must be the result of your experience across your life. Indeed, like all of us, you are quite used to having reactions on first meeting people. It is something you have had a lot of experience with, even though you cannot really explain how you do it. However, the issue that should come to mind is how relevant your experience is to the task of judging this particular job candidate at this particular time.   

This is a hard question to answer because, although you have had lots of experience in meeting people across your life, it is almost impossible to know what subset of those experiences apply to the situation you are facing now.

Now imagine a scenario in which you are renting a bicycle in a city. In your youth, you rode bicycles often and you make a quick intuitive judgment that you won’t have problems with this one. You don’t. You are right. All your past experience with bicycles is reliable and relevant to riding the bicycle in the city.

The scenarios of the job interview and the bicycle are similar in that both involve intuitive judgments that are necessarily made on the basis of experience. They differ, however, in terms of the reliability of one’s experience: It is definitely reliable in the bicycle scenario, but it’s unclear whether it’s reliable in the job interview. This brings us to our major point. Whether blinking is effective or not depends on whether the experience that gave rise to the particular intuition is reliable when applied to the problem being faced.

More generally, we argue that in terms of taking future actions, intuitions—snap judgments that represent what we have learned from experience—can be conceived as having been acquired in learning environments that can differ in their relevance to the situation currently being faced. Indeed, we characterize learning environments as being kind or wicked depending on the situation. article continues after advertisement

So should we blink or think? And when? Clearly blinking works when the decision-maker is performing a task where he or she has been exposed to relevant information, i.e., a kind learning environment. Typically this means that the task has been performed on many occasions and the decision-maker has received prompt and accurate feedback on the validity of judgments. Blink can work. However, if the learning environment is wicked—one that provides irrelevant information and misleading feedback—blinking is not a good strategy.

Made through Canva by Soyer

Blink or Think Source: Made through Canva by Soyer

Unfortunately, in many cases it may be difficult to appreciate whether learning environments are kind or wicked. We are used to learning from experience and this is a process that happens automatically. It also means that, on occasion, the more experience we have with a particular task (like judging job candidates) the more convinced we will be that our inherently fallible judgments are accurate.

We clearly blink frequently in our daily lives and most of the time have little real awareness of whether our judgments are correct. What we need are mechanisms that can help us understand whether our learning environments are kind or wicked and so become aware of when blinking is or is not appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *