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Blink or Think?

In our rising push for speedy and computational decision-making, we tend to worship “blink” – the power of “thinking without thinking,” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. We want the fast answer, the magic bullet. Push, click, fix.

Now, it’s great that intuition has been brought in from the dustbin of psychology. For so long, rational, analytic thinking took precedence in most walks of life, and intuition was disparaged as a women’s trait. (In the 19th-century, women weren’t thought capable of higher forms of thinking, such as analysis and logic.)

And certainly, gut instincts can be accurate, especially if we have some expertise with the question we’re mulling and when the environment in question is relatively predictable. Those are some of the guidelines offered by Nobel-winning economist Danny Kahneman and pioneering decision-making researcher Gary Klein. 

But read the literature closely and you’ll find that our faddish worship of “blink” is as off-kilter as our previous tendency to ignore intuition. Blink and Think go hand in hand.

Consider this. A veteran firefighter confronted with a blaze will take a look, and intuitively sense a way to fight the fire. His intuition is actually a form of pattern recognition, based on his long experience. What’s going on with this fire? Bingo – this blaze is an explosive gas fire needing x,y,z. He intuitively senses a solution – then evaluates the option, mentally turning it over to see if it works, Klein’s decades of work has found.

Or what about the creator who sees a new way to look at the world? She might open up the aperture of her thoughts, exploring all options, until intuitively struck by a new way to frame the question. At this point, reflection is needed to shape this fuzzy intuitive way forward.

These two types of intuition – holistic and inferential, in the words of researcher Jean Pretz – work closely with reflective analysis. We need to reflect in action – in the moment. And we need to reflect back on our actions, as Donald Schon once wrote. Blink alone can’t be the end of the story.

As well, reflection can help us uncover our hazy, subtle, potentially important intuitions, ensuring that we have more “data” – explicit and tacit – at our fingertips, says researcher Erik Dane. The Rice business school assistant professor is studying whether mindful attention can boost awareness of intuitive judgements. If you are highly attentive to changes in your inner and external environment, you’re likely more nimble and a better decision-maker, Dane is discovering in field studies.

If intuition was scorned as women’s work and rational reflection was revered as a male sport, perhaps we need a more androgynous approach to thought? Or at the very least, let’s start to appreciate that our decision-making is quite often a marriage of our own minds.



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