The first chapter of Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink” sets up a contrast between the things we normally associate with certainty, such as being slow and thoughtful and gathering a lot of evidence before making decisions, and the process of snap decision making. The evidence presented is clear and compelling—our snap judgments are as good or better than the slow, gradual process of gathering and analyzing evidence.
At first, this could be read as a scathing indictment of our scientific method. After all, why put in all that time and effort doing research when you (or somebody else) can just look at it and have a better idea from your gut. In fact, it is my guess that this meshes with many of the reactions we already have to published research. How many times have we, as practicing classroom teachers, looked at published study with a bit of disdain that someone would actually do a study to do something so obvious? For example, one recent example that I read was a study correlating vocabulary size to reading comprehension. Really. They found there was a positive correlation, which any teacher could have told you within a blink. This fast reaction to the text falls apart with a little bit of slow thinking, though.
In the first place, I might be able to trust my gut. I might be able to trust some expert’s gut, but does that mean I can trust everyone’s? If we don’t have some explainable standards or reasons for our decisions, it becomes hard to get anything done. The unscrupulous can claim thin-sliced knowledge in order to gain advantage over others—after all, we don’t have to prove things. No, I will not trust your hunches. You will have to prove things to me, and then I will believe you. That is what research and statistics can do.
Second, it was research and statistics that discovered the legitimacy of the hunches. How would we ever know if our knee-jerk reactions were accurate or not if nobody did any research on it? It was Gottman’s study that proved the marriage math. It was Levinson’s work that showed how doctors’ speech affects the rate of malpractice suits. Without this work, we would have been have been guessing about whether we were good guessers or not.
Ultimately, the right to make snap decisions is earned. Those who are accurate at it, such as Harrison and Gottman in Gladwell’s chapter, are those who have put in all the time at slow thinking and processing until it becomes such second nature that they can make the thin-sliced blink decision. Pay your dues, and then trust your gut once you have a massive and deliberately acquired knowledge base.