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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
(By Malcolm Gladwell. 2005. New York: Little, Brown and Company)

Abbie Brown, Ph.D
Associate Professor
Department of Library Science and  Instructional Technology
East Carolina University


Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, is an interesting examination of the “adaptive unconscious.” The adaptive unconscious is a term for that part of the human mind that draws conclusions intuitively as opposed to drawing conclusions from careful deliberation and analysis. Gladwell writes,

“This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of, instead, as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings. When you walk out into the street and suddenly realize that a truck is bearing down on you, do you have time to think through all your options? Of course not. The only way that human beings could ever have survived as a species for as long as we have is that we’ve developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information,” (p. 11).

The book is a well-written report on how the adaptive unconscious operates in a variety of situations. Gladwell describes the adaptive unconscious in action in settings that range from an expert’s determination of the authenticity of a work of art to decision-making in the middle of U.S. military war games. In every case, Gladwell describes the situation in great detail; his interviews with and observations of the decision makers in these situations focus on how the decisions were made and what aspect of those decisions are based on input from the adaptive unconscious. I found each case to be fascinating reading and I was intrigued by how each decision maker attributed many of his or her decisions to the adaptive unconscious. It is Gladwell who uses the term “adaptive unconscious” -- most of the case study principals make mention of a “gut feeling” they have or they attribute their decisions to other factors that Gladwell examines in detail and concludes are actuality the adaptive unconscious in action.

Gladwell does not suggest that decisions made instinctively are always better than those made through careful consideration, but he makes a good argument for paying attention to the adaptive unconscious as part of the decision making process. In reporting on the cases he observed, Gladwell writes,

“There are, I think, two important lessons here. The first is that truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking. Bob Golomb is a great car salesman because he is very good, in the moment, at intuiting the intentions and needs and emotions of his customers. But he is also a great salesman because he understands when to put the brakes on that process: when to consciously resist a particular kind of snap judgment. Cook County’s doctors, similarly function as well as they do in the day-to-day rush of the ER because Lee Goldman sat down at his computer and over the course of many months painstakingly evaluated every possible piece of information that he could. Deliberate thinking is a wonderful tool when we have the luxury of time, the help of a computer, and a clearly defined task, and the fruits of that type of analysis can set the stage for rapid cognition,” (p. 141).

Intuitive decision-making as illustrated by Gladwell’s examples seems to work best for people with extensive experience as well as a history of success in situations similar to the ones in which they are making new decisions. This is an important consideration; it’s not enough to say, “I have a gut feeling…” That feeling should not just be one of self-confidence in one’s intuition; it should be a feeling born from practice and developed skill.

Gladwell also writes, “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,” (p. 143). Since ID as a field takes a certain pride in decisions made based on careful and accountable analysis procedures, relying on the adaptive unconscious for major decisions (e.g. trusting a “gut feeling” that students will respond best to a role-playing game instead of basing the decision for an instructional activity on the results of a learner and/or task analysis) may be unwise. On the other hand, an experienced instructional designer may be well advised to trust his/her intuition as part of the ID process instead of relying completely on sterile analyses.

I think this idea of making appropriate use of intuitive decision-making may be of particular benefit to the instructional design process. Most instructional designers make very good use of analysis protocols to arrive at design decisions (and these often turn out to be very good decisions). However, there are times when intuition can, and often does come into play as part of the decision making process. At those times the adaptive unconscious is often downplayed or deliberately omitted in discussion and documentation. Gladwell makes a strong argument for paying more attention to the adaptive unconscious and giving decisions made intuitively the credit they are due.

In instructional design, trusting the adaptive unconscious may be best incorporated into iterative design approaches. In the process of something like rapid prototyping, after careful analysis that can be readily reported has been conducted, relying on one’s intuition may facilitate the revision process. It seems to me that a balance must be struck between relying on the adaptive unconscious and following established analysis procedures. The balance may be different for novices and experts; experienced designers may feel more comfortable relying on their intuition more often than novice designers might.

I recommend, Blink, to anyone looking to better understand the decision-making process. The book is fun to read – I particularly like the variety of case studies Gladwell has chosen. If nothing else, I felt Blink was worth the read just to be able to add “adaptive unconscious” to my vocabulary.

September 2006 IDT Record