The Book Club

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Intuition?


I spent a lot of time trying to come up with an appropriately inventive way to start this unusual version of a “Book Club” (unusual because we wrote the books we’re going to be talking about). I failed, so instead I’m just going to jump right in. (Requisite disclaimer: You and I are friends, you blurbed my book, and I think Blinkis a terrific book. Now let’s argue about it.) At its core, Blink is a book about the phenomenon you call “thin-slicing,” which is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and people based on very narrow ‘slices’ of experience.” Some people are what you might call experts in thin-slicing, and the book is full of portraits of these people, including John Gottman, who can watch a couple talking for 15 minutes and predict with 90 percent accuracy the future of their marriage, and Paul Ekman, who seems able to read people’s minds merely by looking at their facial expressions. But the first claim of Blink is that it isn’t just experts who thin-slice. Everyone does, all the time. More important, we do so with surprising success, so that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made consciously and deliberately.”

The idea that we all thin-slice is probably not all that controversial—although the sheer thinness of the slices we rely on is pretty amazing. (Students asked to watch five seconds of soundless videotape of a teacher in the classroom came up with evaluations of the teacher’s effectiveness that matched those given by his own students after a full semester of classes.) But the notion that the judgments we make in a couple of seconds can be as good as or as reliable as those we reach after careful deliberation and assimilation of lots of information seems (to use a word you and I both like) counterintuitive. The longer and harder you think about something, we usually assume, the better you think about it. Blink suggests that this isn’t always (or even often) the case.

On the other hand, the bias against “rapid cognition” is clearly sometimes justified. In fact, although Blink is ultimately, I think, a testament to the virtues and power of our unconscious reactions, some of the best parts of it have to do with the way those reactions can be sabotaged by prejudice, stress, inexperience, and complexity, so that intuition ends up being worse, not better, than deliberation. No one will be shocked to learn that race skews our reactions (though it’s remarkable how much it does so), but how about height? One of the most telling examples in the book is a study you did of corporate CEOs, showing that they are, on average, much taller than the populace at large. There’s no rational explanation for this—no one really thinks tall people are better decision-makers or strategic thinkers. It’s just that in our culture, height (at least for men) has all sorts of positive connotations, connotations that often overwhelm more reasonable considerations. Similarly, in situations where there’s little time to think, we often fall back on simple rules of thumb that lead us astray. And if we don’t know enough to begin with, there’s no guarantee our instinctive reactions will be good ones. (When you tried to thin-slice the couples the way John Gottman does, for instance, you did no better than average.) But while this may seem to mean that most of us (the non-experts) should not rely on rapid cognition, you argue that we can learn to be better, “that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.”

I hope we get to talk about all of these ideas, but for now I’ll just raise a question about the one I began this discussion with—the idea that rapid cognition is often as good as more careful deliberation. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we do rely on thin-slicing, and that decisions that we may explain away as the result of long, hard thought often in fact reflect an instinctive choice that took only a few seconds to make. And there are clearly myriad situations in which this kind of rapid cognition is both inevitable and beneficial. You mention Gary Klein’s work on the kind of intuition that, for instance, firefighters rely on, which clearly shows that often, trusting their first reactions ends up saving their lives. Stock market traders, soldiers, cops: It’s easy to see how these people have to be able to thin-slice successfully in order to do their jobs well. But I wonder whether that’s really true of all of us and whether it’s really true of many (perhaps even most) decisions that we make.

Take the example you cite of Paul van Riper, a retired Marine who in 2002 played the role in a war game of the enemy commander battling U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon had anticipated that the United States, with its superior intelligence-gathering capabilities, its total informational superiority, and its carefully delineated leadership structures, would crush the enemy forces. But van Riper outfoxed them. Using surprise and low-tech solutions, he devastated the U.S. forces. You suggest that this was because van Riper’s strategy capitalized on keeping his side’s “powers of rapid cognition” intact, and there’s clearly something to this. But when van Riper talks about what he did—including a cruise-missile launch against the U.S. fleet—he says, “We’d done all the calculations on how many cruise missiles their ships could handle, so we simply launched more than that. …” Similarly, about his decision to communicate using lighting systems after his side’s electronics technologies were knocked out, he says, “Any moderately informed person would know enough to not count on those technologies.” Neither of those strategies really sounds like the product of thin-slicing. Each sounds instead like the result of rational calculation and study. Van Riper was clearly a better decision-maker than the leaders of the U.S. forces. But was he a more intuitive one?

To be sure, van Riper is a fervent advocate of doing away with traditional command-and-control structures and of giving decision-makers in the field the freedom to act on their instincts. But he seems to draw a distinction in his own mind between those situations where rapid cognition works well and those situations where it doesn’t. “When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision-making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance,” he says. This suggests that the real challenge is figuring out which problems can be solved by rapid cognition and which are better solved by a calculating, rational approach. So, the questions I’ll start with are: First, is thin-slicing really how decisions get made in complex environments? And second, and more important, if it is, can we really count on it to reliably produce good decisions?