Dr. John Young                                                       Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville  



Rapid Cognition


            Unitarian Universalists expect to practice rational spirituality. Our fifth Unitarian Universalist Association [UUA] tradition identifies us with “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit,” and our fourth UUA principle is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”


            In December, I shared the ideas of Edward De Bono and his Six Thinking Hats, which argues that we need to spend as much attention on getting our thinking organized effectively, doing hopeful entrepreneurial thinking, and creative thinking as simply concentrating upon critical, informational, or emotional thinking. De Bono is convinced that we need to learn to focus in tandem on each of these six types of thinking in order to actually become good thinkers, as individuals, organizations, or societies.


            This morning, I want to bring to your attention the ideas of another seminal thinker about thinking. His name is Malcolm Gladwell. He was formerly a business and science reporter for The Washington Post and a former writer for The New Yorker magazine. His earlier book was The Tipping Point. This book is called Blink.


            Blink is about rapid cognition. It is about the kind of thinking that makes up our first impressions, intuitions, and unconscious conclusions. Gladwell wants us to understand how important this kind of thinking is to how we often act, to realize how different this kind of thinking is compared to our more logical, conscious, and explained forms of consciousness, and to learn how we can protect, control, and educate our rapid cognitions.


Without rapid cognition, we would not have survived as a species nor could we survive and flourish as individuals. However, the facts, strategies and processes of rapid cognition are different from our usual, ordinary logical, conscious thinking processes. Rapid cognition is fast and frugal. It is not Freud’s version of the unconscious, but the adaptive unconscious that helps us to do the silent, unconscious computing that allows us to make fast decisions in order to survive and flourish. Sometimes, however, our snap judgments, first impressions, unconscious thought processes, and basic instincts betray us. They are fallible, and they can throw us off and disable us. We need to learn when to listen to these urgent voices in our head and when to be wary of them. We need to learn to take our first impressions seriously and respect their wisdom without being ruled by them.


Gladwell argues that human beings toggle back and forth most of the time between rapid cognition and our logical, systematic, conscious thinking processes. Too often, we act and philosophize as if all thinking could be of the logical, systematic, conscious variety, but many situations do not give us time for this kind of thinking. So, humanity has nurtured these two different kinds of thinking, and we use both of these different kinds of thinking all the time. However, we often criticize others or justify ourselves only in terms of the logical, systematic conscious thinking and refuse to admit that rapid cognition is still going on and is, in fact, often decisive in the decisions we make and the opinions we hold. Gladwell wants us to learn to take our first impressions, snap judgments, intuitions, and unconscious thinking seriously while getting at their origins and frailties. He calls this kind of thinking thin slicing. You are taking only a few moments, making a thin slice, like a specimen for a microscopic slide, but your responses to that slice are often determinative for your thinking, your actions, and your life.


Here is a pungent example. Psychologist John Gottman, the University of Washington [in Seattle] marriage expert, studied math at MIT, psychology at Washington, fought in Viet Nam, and has written seminal books on his thousands of video-taped interviews with married couples, like The Mathematics of Divorce. Gottman looks at 20 emotional states on these videos. He has each couple talk for 30 minutes about an issue in their marriage about which they disagree. From those 30 minute interviews, often even in only 3 minutes of each interview, Gottman can now determine with 95% accuracy whether the couple will still be married 15 years later.


He has found that four of those 20 specific affects: contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, and criticism are what he considers the four horsemen of marriage break-ups. Positive sentiment can override negative, say in being critical. Men tend more often to stonewall, and women tend more often to be critical. However, if there are even small non-verbal signals of contempt, that level of disgust which really excludes the other from community usually heralds a slippery slope to marriage break-up. Gottman has found that the general ratio in marital discourse needs to be at least a positive 5 to negative 1 ratio in order to maintain a viable relationship. He has found that emotional affect patterns tend to repeat themselves over and over again. Often, wise thin slicing may provide more accurate predictive data on divorce than years of counseling.


Here is another example. A study determined from short ordinary interactions between doctors and patients which doctors are likely to be sued. The doctors who listened appreciatively and respectfully to their patients almost never get sued, even if their medical skills are mediocre and they make more actual medical errors. On the other hand, doctors who use a dominating tone and do not seem to pay much personal attention to their patients do get sued much more often, even when they are highly proficient and make almost no medical errors. That sounds like a pretty important thin slicing for medical students to understand, doesn’t it?


Now, let’s think together a little about the negative sides of thin slicing. Prejudice, bigotry, and parochialism are also aspects of these snap impressions and unconscious thinking. A study asked people very quickly to pair African-American and Euro-Americans on good and bad characteristics. Even most people, white or black, who were systematically and consciously non-prejudiced, tend much more often to associate African-Americans with bad characteristics when required to do rapid cognition. In another study in the Chicago area, a group of people presented themselves to car sales people to buy a car. They all told the same story about their education, job, how much they made, age, and where they lived. A fourth of them were:  white men, black men, white women, and black women. Here is what the negotiated average price was for the four groups with identical characteristics except their gender and race: white males: $835 above base price, white women: $935, black females: $1195, and black males: $1600. Race and gender make a difference in America every day, much of it because of the decisions made in rapid cognition.


Here is another gender example. There were very few women musicians in professional symphony orchestras until there was blind screening. Most conductors and existing symphony musicians just knew that men made better members of an orchestra. When there began to have blind screening, there were suddenly a whole bunch of women symphony musicians, and also some minority symphony musicians. A symphony audition is still a thin slicing, but now the judges needed to simply use their ears and had to stop bringing their prejudices to the audition. A small woman might be the best trombone player. A Japanese man might be the best new violinist for the German orchestra.


Here is another example. Very few CEOs are short men. There are plenty of short men in management, but Gladwell found only 5 out of 1000 CEOs that were shorter than the average American male, and most CEOs were much taller than the average male height. Gladwell believes that there may be almost as much prejudice against short white men as CEOs as hiring a woman or a minority CEO.


With De Bono’s Six Hats, we were considering how to do a better job of our conscious thinking by looking at one kind of conscious thinking and then another as a team. With Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, we are considering how to do a better job with our unconscious, intuitive rapid thinking. Rapid unconscious thinking is essential to our survival and success as individuals and as a species, but this kind of thinking, learned significantly through example and direct experience, and it also produces prejudice and parochialism. Once we recognize how important rapid cognition is and how different it is from our logical conscious thinking, then Gladwell wants to help us learn how to protect, control, and educate our unconscious, intuitive first impressions. He wants to train up a part of ourselves as a mental valet which allows us to concentrate on what is actually important and to discard our prejudices and parochialism.


Most often experts size up a situation quickly and proceed to act intuitively. Gladwell found that young stock or commodity trading floor professionals and military generals had much to talk about and could do one another’s decision-making processes well because they were both accustomed to assured rapid cognition. In improvisational comedy troupes, they work by accepting all offers made and never denying another’s suggestions. With those rules of engagement, they can be successful in their spontaneity. Most of us can recognize a face, which is something we have learned to do well through rapid cognition, but have a much harder time writing down an accurate written description. These different forms of cognition are using different hemispheres of the brain. Too often people catch paralysis through analysis. Too often people are in command but out of control. Successful leaders recruit reliable subordinates and trust them. They know their people, and they forsake long meetings and micro-management for good communication, trust, and focused introspection.


The trick is basically to study a situation and reduce it to the essential elements needed to get the results you wish. For instance, too many choices in consumption do not add up to more sales. People become imprisoned by wanting to know everything. Since Pepsi is sweeter, it won most of the Pepsi challenges, and Coke mistakenly over-reacted by producing a Pepsi-tasting New Coke. However, people drink a whole bottle of soft drink, and in those tests Coke continued to hold its own; thus, the return to classic Coke. The doctor who truly listens to her patients has a better chance to make a correct diagnosis, and she will establish a better and more long-lasting relationship with her patients.


Cook County Hospital in Chicago had more people with chest pains that it had cardiac beds; so, they needed to establish a few reliable signs to distinguish the most deserving patients. Using straight-forward tests of an EKG, unstable angina, fluid in the lungs, and blood pressure of less than 100, they could catch the heart attacks 95% of the time, with 70% more accuracy than their previous, longer and more complicated processes. Appropriate rapid cognition was safer and way better.


Rapid cognition or thin slicing needs to be done in context. They found that they could sell margarine once they made it look like butter. They found that they could sell more brandy with fancier bottles. Hermann Miller’s new Aeron Chairs were ugly, but they transformed the office chair by making the ugly into the new standard for office chairs. Both All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore did not test well with audiences because they were too different and challenged existing prejudices and parochialism, but some of the experts believed in the new products and kept them on the TV market until they built a following. The first impressions of experts, whether they are media chiefs, art historians, or food or wine tasters, are more complex, and they can account for their judgments. They learn from their mistakes, and adjust their opinions.

Gladwell argues that most of us suffer from temporary autism in some situations. Autistic people are blind to reading non-verbal cures. They lack the capacity for empathy; they just get the literal meaning of things. This may allow them to concentrate and be brilliant in certain environments, but it makes them appear incompetent in many social situations. Most of us read a great deal from the human faces we encounter. Emotions show in our faces, but an autistic person misses those cues. Gladwell points out that 90% of police never fire their weapon at another person in their whole career. So, there is much evidence than when they do have to do so, they often suffer from temporary autism.


We need to become less careless of our powers of rapid cognition. We need to learn to listen more wisely with our eyes. We need to educate and control our snap judgments. Our rapid cognitions are an invaluable part of our reasoning powers, but they need to be understood, disciplined, and educated. We need to practice thinking with our hearts so that we can transform those of our rapid cognitions that are prejudices and parochialisms into wisdom and practical love. We can only do so if we take our intuitions seriously and become as wise and disciplined in our intuitive, rapid cognition as we try to be with our conscious logical thought. Without a spiritual practice that takes the education, nurture, and control of intuition seriously, we cannot hope to succeed in our responsible search for truth, nor will we be truly heeding the guidance of reason or the results of science. Without responsible focusing of our intuitive rapid thinking on what is truly important and relevant, we will far too often fall deep into idolatries of the mind and spirit.