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By Malcolm Gladwell


The subtitle, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is a perfect summary of this book, it is a very interesting read. Gladwell goes through various scenarios from speed dating and judging musicians, to police shootings, high speed chases and coaching top athletes. He presents many tests and studies done to show just how bias we are unknowingly, how powerful our unconscious is without having to stop and think and the interesting part, how accurate our unconscious mind is under pressure or in complex situations. We often assume that with more time and more information we would make better decisions, but that is far from reality in many circumstances. The difficult and mostly unanswered question is; under which circumstances should we take more time and gather more information, and when should we thin slice or use the small amount of data that is quickly accessible to make a snap judgment?


Early in the book Gladwell presents some fascinating information about Dr. John Gottman’s ability to watch a married couple discuss a controversial issue that is not marital. Their example was a couple discussing their dog. The husband doesn’t want it and the wife does. Gottman can watch a couple’s discussion for 3 minutes and then predict with greater than 90% accuracy if the couple will be married or divorced in 7 years. Gottman has become so good at thin slicing couples relationships that he can recognize destructive patterns within a few minutes of meeting them. He has also found that for a marriage to survive they must have an average of 5 positive experiences together for every 1 negative. The 4 negative emotions he looks for are: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Worst of all is contempt.


Gladwell presents studies about priming, where they had people read something before performing an act. The students who read scrambled sentences containing words you would hear when talking about older people in a retirement home performed the task more slowly. African American students that were asked to identify their race before taking an exam got half as many questions correct compared to those who didn’t identify their race. He talks about racial priming and discrimination. There are social messages associated with each race and just thinking about it before an exam was enough to prime these students with negative emotion. If these student had looked over images of Nelsen Mandela and Martin Luther King before taking the test their results would have been much different.


Using a story from a fire chief Gladwell talks about the way experts often use what wasn’t normal or correct to make judgments even though in the moment of intense pressure they weren’t sure what was actually happening. The example in the book is a fire crew entered a burning building on and upper level. The chief thought it was odd that the fire was so hot, it was too quiet and it didn’t react right to water being sprayed on it, so he got the crew out moments before the floor collapsed. The main fire was actually below them. He knew many of the normal things were not occurring but he could not have explained it in the moment. He reacted correctly because of the unusual circumstances.


Our snap judgments can play a major role in the way we taste. For example the taste tests between Pepsi and Coke. Pepsi won the majority of the time but the proportions of people who like an entire can of Coke vs and entire can of Pepsi are very different. When marketing margarine vs butter the margarine was not as good to people until they colored it yellow and then people loved it. When Seven-Up put a little more yellow on the bottle, people complained that it tasted to lemony.


An intense and very interesting section of the book is in regards to police officers under pressure. They are required to make life or death snap judgments and for some reason some make huge mistakes while others are able to process the situation appropriately and accurately. One reason is because we perform best when our heart rate is between 115-145 beats per minute. When it reaches about 175 beats per minute we see cognitive breakdown and certain parts of the brain shut down and other parts take over. Many police procedures are intended to help the police officer slow down and stay calm. This why police all over the country are not doing high speed chases any more. By the end of a chase everybody involved has such an adrenaline rush that their bodies and brains are hardly functioning at optimal levels. This is also why single person police cars have better outcomes. When police are alone, they slow down and follow procedure, when they are in pairs they speed things up and make mistakes.


“If you take advantage of intelligence and cover, you will almost never have to make an instinctive decision.” I think this quote can be applied to many aspects of our lives like investing, relationships, driving and many others. One conclusion by Gladwell, though not completely full proof, is that it seems like we use snap judgment for small things and not for complex issues when we would probably make better decisions if we gathered information and made educated decisions on small, simple things, and used thin slicing on very complex and intense situations. When you’re driving on the freeway use your intelligence to notice you and move out of another driver’s blind spot and use your snap judgment when a car cuts you off. Most people stay in blind spots and drive too fast but when something goes wrong they use their horn to make sure the other driver knows they’re mad instead of using their breaks to stay safe.


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