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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.