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The Moment of Truth?


In the 1990s researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin conducted what seemed like routine man-in-the-street interviews: they asked pedestrians to tell them, off the tops of their heads, the names of German businesses. Led by the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, the researchers then constructed a stock portfolio made up of companies mentioned by 90 percent of the respondents. A few months later that portfolio had not only beaten the market soundly, it had performed better than ones constructed by money managers. Instead of assessing market fundamentals and dividend yields and economic trends, as the experts did, the psychologists took a shortcut—what in their language is known as a “heuristic”—that relied solely on name recognition. And because the researchers “put our money where our heuristic was” they ended up with both a wad of cash and a hypothesis to test further: that knowing less can be knowing more; that decisions derived hastily are more efficient and accurate than decisions based on exhaustive research when—or as long as—the decision-maker uses the appropriate shortcut to limit incoming information.1

In 1999, not long after their stock market triumph, Gigerenzer and his associates published a book called Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart. In it, they not only made the case that we all rely on mental short-cuts whether we’re conscious of doing so or not, but that we’d be better off if we employed them more deliberately. “In our program, we see heuristics as the way the human mind can take advantage of the structure of information …to arrive at reasonable decisions,” they wrote. And so, cognitive psychology ventured into self-help.

Malcolm Gladwell’s fevered new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, blessedly uses the word “heuristic” rarely, but its subject and intent closely follow Gigerenzer’s. Where Gigerenzer and his group of social scientists present their rather arcane heuristic strategies as “an adaptive toolbox” for arriving at decisions “fast and frugally,” Blink is evangelical in a got-religion kind of way, with Gladwell offering it up as a “tool kit” for people aiming to reach the higher consciousness of rapid cognition through what he calls “thin-slicing”—looking at the smallest amount of information possible. In fact, both books wander through territory staked out by Herbert Simon fifty years ago when he wrote about “bounded rationality,”2 as well as by practitioners of a branch of psychology called “heuristics and biases,” and by evolutionary biologists and economists and neuroscientists and philosophers and those ancient taxonomists who classified cognition as either intuition or reason. It’s a long literature, and hey! who has time for it?

Saving time would appear to be the essence of rapid cognition. Why waste precious minutes performing a complete physical exam on a man suffering chest pains if there are only three symptoms that reliably rule out heart attack? Why suffer through dinner on a blind date when a five-minute conversation would be cheaper and revealing enough? Gladwell’s point—much like Gigerenzer’s before him—is that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

While it is doubtful that someone who has swerved out of the path of an oncoming truck, or picked the right horse at Saratoga because there was something about its name—which is to say anyone—would disagree that quick, even instant, decisions can be good, even excellent ones, Gladwell’s ambition hints at a general bias in the way we think about thinking. If it is not precisely a bias toward overvaluing decisions we have to sweat over, then it is a bias toward undervaluing ones that are speedy, visceral, and seemingly unreflective. (Yes, LBJ asked the woman who would become Lady Bird to marry him the first time they met, but would you?) “What would happen,” Gladwell wonders, “if we took our instincts seriously?”

What Gladwell is getting at may be more an issue about human anatomy than about human thought. Not only do we have a brain stem and a limbic system, the repositories of instinct, we have a well-developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that enables us, more than any other species, to plan and to ponder; the part, in other words, that makes us human.

But thinking, Gladwell tells us—or, more precisely, thinking too much—can trip us up. Consider the cura-tors at the Getty Museum who were offered the opportunity to purchase a rare sixth-century Greek marble statue of a young man. After a year of sophisticated archaeological and geological analysis that included core sampling and electron spectrometry and X-ray diffraction, they handed over nearly ten million dollars, cer-tain that the piece was authentic, a find. Meanwhile, two leading art historians, Frederico Zeri and Eve-lyn Harrison, and Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropol-itan Museum of Art, each came to a different conclusion after simply eyeballing the piece: even in the face of such compelling scientific data they felt it was a fake. And they were right:

In the first two seconds of looking—in a single glance—they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.

Blink,” Gladwell says, “is a book about those first two seconds.”

Ask Thomas Hoving how he knew, instantly, that the kouros was a fake, though, and he won’t exactly be able to say.3 Nor can the tennis coach Vic Braden explain how he can “see” a double fault well before the tennis ball has hit the ground. Explanations of this degree of perspicacity inevitably falter.

Something in the way the tennis players were holding themselves or the way they toss the ball, or the fluidity of their motion triggers something in his unconscious,” Gladwell writes of Braden.

He instinctively picks up the “giss” of a double fault. He thin-slices some part of the service motion and—blink!—he just knows. But here’s the catch: much to Braden’s frustration, he simply cannot figure out how he knows.

And nor, it seems, can Malcolm Gladwell: “…Snap judgments are, first of all, enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience. But they are also unconscious…. Snap judgments and rapid cognition take place behind a locked door.” Gladwell’s tool kit, it seems, does not include a key. (Gigerenzer’s heuristics, in contrast, are his keys.)

Is it so remarkable that the former head of what is arguably the world’s leading art museum, a man who has been assessing works of art for the better part of half a century, should spot an art fraud? Is it really amazing that one of the most successful tennis coaches in the history of the sport should intuitively know which flawed body mechanics are likely to produce a double fault? It would be amazing if Gigerenzer’s German pedestrians were calling faults with something approaching Braden’s accuracy, or knowing—not guessing—that the kouros was a fake. But that’s absurd. Hoving’s “snap” judgment, much like Braden’s unerring calls, is only quick when time is measured on a discrete, twenty-four-hour clock. But time is cumulative. Hoving and Braden’s snap judgments issue from decades of experience. In this sense they are neither fast nor frugal.

Experience matters. It lays down tracks in the brain, cognitive templates against which new information is compared. Herbert Simon called this pattern recognition and observed that it was one of the most common and efficient ways that we make sense of the world. In his latest book, The Wisdom Paradox, the neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg observes that exposure to similar, new things creates neural networks in the brain that attract each other and accumulate, networks that in some circumstances are expressed as expertise and in others as intuition (or both). The networks accrue with age—Goldberg ventures to call the result of this accumulation wisdom—and are, therefore, unavailable to young people. They enable the brain to recognize not only information that has been encountered before, but what may be encountered in the future, and to rapidly apprehend connections between what is and what was and what will be.

Intuition is often understood as an antithesis to analytic decision-making, as something inherently nonanalytic or preanalytic,” Goldberg writes.

But in reality, intuition is the condensation of vast prior analytic experience; it is analysis compressed and crystallized…. It is the product of analytic processes being condensed to such a degree that its internal structure may elude even the person benefiting from it…. The intuitive decision-making of an expert bypasses orderly, logical steps precisely because it is a condensation of extensive use of such orderly logical steps in the past.

It is not only experience and the passing of time that open the province of intuition—of pattern recognition and condensed decision-making—to people as they age, it is also biology. It’s how we’ve evolved. The left hemisphere– right hemisphere duality of our brains that was once seen—through studies of adults with brain damage—primarily as a division between language functions (left brain) and visual-spatial reasoning (right brain) is now known to encompass something much broader: a distinction between processing what’s new and what’s not. “The right hemisphere is the novelty hemisphere, the daring hemisphere, the explorer of the unknown and the uncharted,” writes Goldberg. “The left hemisphere is the repository of compressed knowledge, of stable pattern-recognition devices that enable the organism to deal efficiently and effectively with familiar situations.”

Goldberg’s brain-imaging research has borne this out. The right hemisphere is activated when an individual is in the early stages of acquiring a new cognitive skill but as that task is mastered, the left brain takes over:

The right-to-left transfer could also be demonstrated for various real-life professional skills, which take years to acquire. Novices performing the tasks requiring such skills showed clear right-hemisphere activation. But skilled professionals showed distinct left-hemisphere activation while performing the same tasks.

It is the same across the age span: brain-imaging studies have shown that young people have more activation on the right side of the brain, and that it shifts to the left as we get older:

Contrary to previously well-entrenched beliefs, the right hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere at early stages of life. But as we move through the life span it gradually loses ground to the left hemisphere, as the latter accumulates an ever-increasing “library” of efficient pattern-recognition devices in the form of neural attractors.

Imagine two bird watchers, one experienced, one a beginner. The experienced one catches a glimpse of a large, yellowish bird flickering overhead and calls out “evening grosbeak.” Meanwhile the novice frantically flips through a field guide, shuttling between pages of yellow birds, birds with crowned heads, birds with large silhouettes, birds that undulate as they fly. The experienced bird watcher has synthesized all that data and internalized a signature pattern, while the novice must rely on an external device—the field guide—which can only provide information, not synthesis, and inefficiently at that. The experienced bird watcher responds quickly because she’s relying on the accumulated wisdom of “intuition.” The novice can only stand there—like Malcolm Gladwell in the presence of Vic Braden—amazed.

  1. 1

    In another experiment, students at the University of Chicago and the University of Munich were asked whether San Diego or San Antonio had more inhabitants. While 62 percent of the Americans answered correctly, 100 percent of the Germans did. “All the German students had heard of San Diego but many of them did not recognize San Antonio. They were thus able to apply the recognition heuristic and make a correct inference.” The Americans, in contrast, were “not ignorant enough.”

  2. 2

    Contrary to classical economic theory, which held that people make choices based on all available information, Simon argued that the universe of available information was too large and that people choose the first option that meets their needs.

  3. 3

    According to Gladwell: “Hoving always makes a note of the first word that goes through his head when he sees something new, and he’ll never forget what that word was when he first saw the kouros. ‘It was “fresh”—”fresh,”’ Hoving recalls…. ‘I had dug in Sicily, where we found bits and pieces of these things. They just don’t come out looking like that.’” Later Gladwell writes of the scholars who assessed the kouros: “They simply took a look at that statue and some part of their brain did a series of instant calculations, and before any kind of conscious thought took place, they felt something, just like the sudden prickling of sweat on the palms of the gamblers. For Thomas Hoving, it was the completely inappropriate word ‘fresh’ that suddenly popped into his head. In the case of Angelos Delivorrias, it was a wave of ‘intuitive repulsion.’ For Georgios Dontas, it was the feeling that there was a glass between him and the work. Did they know why they knew? Not at all. But they knew.”

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