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Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Theme Analysis

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Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Theme Icon

At the heart of Blink is the concept of rapid cognition, or “thin-slicing,” the process by which people make quick assessments of the world using a limited amount of evidence. Sometimes, people base their decisions on thorough, deliberate, and rational choices—yet Gladwell shows that a staggering number of our decisions result from thin-slicing and instinctive hunches about how to act. This kind of decision-making process has some notable advantages, but also some clear problems.

In the early chapters of his book, Gladwell sketches out the basic steps and components of thin-slicing. To begin with, he divides the human mind into two distinct parts: the conscious, rational mind, and the “adaptive unconscious” (the part of the mind that engages in the process of thin-slicing). The conscious mind is good at studying a wide range of evidence and drawing conclusions about what to do from this evidence. However, the adaptive unconscious works very differently from the conscious mind: it’s adept at assessing a very small amount of evidence about the external world (a “thin slice”) and then making an instinctive decision about how to respond to this evidence. (It’s worth noting that Gladwell’s model of the adaptive unconscious is very different from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious: unlike Freud’s unconscious, the adaptive unconscious is constantly responding to literal, external stimuli.) It’s important to recognize that the adaptive unconscious acts instinctively and, in a sense, reflexively; put another way, a human being doesn’t necessarily know when he or she’s using the adaptive unconscious. Blink studies the strengths and weaknesses of the adaptive unconscious, and theorizes about the extent to which it’s possible to control it.

As Gladwell acknowledges, the process of rapid cognition has some disadvantages. Rapid cognition is, by definition, prejudicial: it consists of making assessments of other people without all the evidence—in short, “judging a book by its cover.” Therefore, people sometimes make bad decisions because they rely too heavily on the adaptive unconscious; for example, they favor people who seem trustworthy and likable, but aren't. Put another way, they act on “bad evidence”—the thin slice that determines their behavior (e.g., a person’s appearance or demeanor) isn’t representative of reality. Rapid cognition can also lead people to fall back on racist or sexist stereotypes about other people (see Prejudice theme).

But in spite of its clear problems, rapid cognition also has some notable benefits. Perhaps most importantly, rapid cognition is … rapid. There are many occasions when people don’t have the time to weigh all available evidence. In such a moment, people need to use the adaptive unconscious to decide what to do. The adaptive unconscious is also more adept at interpreting subtle pieces of evidence such as facial cues, which the conscious mind often ignores. In all, Gladwell suggests that human beings would have gone extinct long ago if rapid cognition hadn’t helped them act in times of crisis.

Gladwell never claims that rapid cognition is either perfect or morally right. However, he argues that rapid cognition plays a valuable role in human behavior—a role that’s too-often ignored. By themselves, neither rational decision-making nor thin-slicing can guide humans one hundred percent of the time. But perhaps by combining rationality and rapid cognition in their lives, Gladwell suggests, humans can make the best possible decisions.

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Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Quotes in Blink

Below you will find the important quotes in Blink related to the theme of Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious.
Introduction Quotes

When [the art historians] looked at the kouros and felt an "intuitive repulsion," they were absolutely 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.

Related Symbols: The “Greek” statue
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Introduction to Blink, Gladwell offers a good example of how rapid cognition can help people understand the world. In the 1980s, the Getty Art Museum acquired a beautiful Greek statue. But some art historians felt an intuitive sense that the statue was “wrong.” In Gladwell’s terminology, they used rapid cognition—the largely unconscious process of assessing the world through intuition—to assess the statue quickly and efficiently.

Rapid cognition has some obvious problems, which Gladwell will discuss soon enough, but this example emphasizes the one critical advantage of rapid cognition—it’s “rapid.” The art historians who felt an intuitive repulsion around the statue knew more about it in seconds than other people knew after months of study. So even in the world of art preservation (which doesn’t require too many split-second decisions) the advantages of rapid cognition are clear—if the Getty officials had listened to the art historians mentioned in the passage, they could have saved themselves months of time (not to mention a huge sum of money). In the worlds of law enforcement, war, comedic improvisation, etc., rapid cognition isn’t just faster and potentially more accurate than ordinary, rational thinking—sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it’s the only kind of thinking humans are capable of. Therefore, it’s important for us to understand how rapid cognition works and what its strengths and weaknesses are.


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We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell acknowledges that he has his work cut out for him: there’s a very strong bias against the kind of snap judgments that he’ll be writing about. As he explains here, people tend to think that snap judgments are narrow-minded, ignorant, and generally not useful. Gladwell’s response is that, although snap judgments are often ignorant and useless, there are moments when they can be more insightful than the most thoughtful, measured judgments.

Maybe the most important word in this passage is “can”—snap judgments can be insightful, but not necessarily. As Gladwell will show, there is no guarantee that rapid cognition offers a good way of deciphering the world. However, the potential rewards of rapid cognition—and there are plenty—mean that we should study snap judgments more closely instead of dismissing them altogether.

Chapter 1 Quotes

Gottman may seem to be an odd example in a book about the thoughts and decisions that bubble up from our unconscious. There's nothing instinctive about his approach. He's not making snap judgments. He's sitting down with his computer and painstakingly analyzing videotapes, second by second. His work is a classic example of conscious and deliberate thinking. But Gottman, it turns out, can teach us a great deal about a critical part of rapid cognition known as thin-slicing. "Thin-slicing" refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.

Related Characters: John Gottman
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell discusses a psychological researcher named John Gottman. Gottman’s research concerns videotapes of married couples—amazingly, Gottman has found that he can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, whether or not young married couples will still be married in fifteen years, based entirely on analyses of their brief conversations. Gottman’s analysis is a good example of thin-slicing: the practice of extrapolating large conclusions from very small pieces of evidence. In this case, the small pieces of evidence would be the short conversations between a married couple, and the large conclusion would be whether or nor the couple will be married in fifteen years.

One strange thing about Gottman’s research, which Gladwell discusses here, is that is that Gottman has taken years to train himself to assess couples’ compatibility. Thus, the passage exemplifies how, even if thin-slicing is usually an instinctive behavior, people can train themselves to get better at thin-slicing. When Gottman began his research, he didn’t know how to interpret interactions between couples—but after hundreds of hours of practice, he’s a pro at it.

Most of us have difficulty believing that a 275-pound football lineman could have a lively and discerning intellect. We just can't get past the stereotype of the dumb jock. But if all we saw of that person was his bookshelf or the art on his walls, we wouldn't have that same problem.

Page Number: 37-38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell gives an example of how thin slicing can be more insightful and accurate about other people than a traditional, well-reasoned judgment. If we were to meet a huge, sweaty football star who happened to have an IQ of 195, we probably wouldn’t think that he was a genius—our stereotypes about athletes would cloud our judgment (or so Gladwell assumes). However, if we thin-sliced his living quarters and saw the books on his shelf, we’d probably stand a better chance of assessing his intelligence correctly.

The point of this example is that thin-slicing isn’t necessarily ignorant or close-minded. Tiny pieces of evidence really do communicate a lot of information—and it’s up to humans to interpret these pieces of evidence. By the same token, the passage suggests that thin slicing and prejudice aren’t one and the same. One the surface, it seems that thin-slicing is, by definition, a form of prejudice: it involves makes judgments about people before we have all the information. But Gladwell’s counterintuitive point is that thin-slicing can actually be a way to sidestep prejudice: by limiting the amount of evidence we study, we also limit our chances of having our judgment clouded by stereotypes or bias.

This time around, the observers' ratings predicted with better than eighty percent accuracy which marriages were going to make it. That's not quite as good as Gottman. But it's pretty impressive - and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’re old hands at thin-slicing.

Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

The chapter closes on an interesting note: when John Gottman trained laypeople to interpret couples’ interactions, he found that they were remarkably good at doing so. Gottman was able to teach ordinary people most of the rules that he’d taught himself over the course of many years, so that, in the end, laypeople could watch footage of a husband and wife interacting and predict, with eighty percent accuracy, whether they’d remain together in fifteen years. Eighty percent may not be as good at Gottman’s ninety-five percent, but it’s still pretty impressive. Moreover, the fact that laypeople could train themselves to interpret couples’ interactions so accurately suggests that all human beings, regardless of their intelligence or talent, are in a sense hard-wired to make insightful snap judgments about the external world. Even if these snap judgments aren’t always accurate, we can train ourselves to improve our own rapid cognition and become more observant, intelligent people.

Chapter 2 Quotes

The results from these experiments are, obviously, quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act - and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment - are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell’s ideas have some surprising and, as he admits, disturbing, implications. Specifically, the idea of the adaptive unconscious challenges our ordinary understanding of free will. Most people would say that human beings are capable of making free choices, using their rationality, their emotions, and their tastes. Gladwell would say that there is a limit to human freedom. At times, people do things because they’ve been unconsciously conditioned—or “primed,” as he phrases it—to behave a certain way. For example, when people read a list of trigger words such as “old,” “grey,” etc., they walk more slowly afterwords.

Gladwell’s comments about freedom might seem depressing. Nevertheless, Gladwell isn’t saying that humans can be brainwashed into doing anything—trigger words, for example, can nudge people into certain behaviors and actions, but they can’t cause people to lose their willpower altogether. Perhaps it’s fair to say that free will exists on a spectrum: humans are capable of some free choices, but not as many as they thought. Our choices aren’t completely out of our own control, but they are at least partly “susceptible to outside influences.”

Everyone in that room had not one mind but two, and all the while their conscious mind was blocked, their unconscious was scanning the room, sifting through possibilities, processing every conceivable clue. And the instant it found the answer, it guided them - silently and surely - to the solution.

Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell talks about an experiment in which people were “primed” to come up with a solution to a complex logic puzzle. The point of the experiment, as Gladwell interprets it, is that the adaptive unconscious can be better at finding solutions to problems and puzzles than the conscious, rational mind. In the experiment, people tried to use their rational minds to solve the puzzle; however, it was only because their unconscious minds were “scanning the room” that they finally arrived at an elegant solution.

The passage foreshadows some of the following chapters, in which Gladwell will show how the adaptive unconscious can be a site of creativity and insight. Rationality and logic are important, but sometimes unconscious snap judgments are more effective in solving problems. Thus, the passage is a good illustration of the advantages of “blinking.”

Chapter 3 Quotes

The Warren Harding error is the dark side of rapid cognition. It is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination.

Related Characters: Warren Harding
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first two chapters of Blink, Gladwell mostly explored how rapid cognition can be a “tool for good,” in the process avoiding the common-sense belief that rapid cognition is shallow and ignorant. But in Chapter Three, he admits that, indeed, rapid cognition can be tremendously ignorant. He studies the life of Warren Harding, an unremarkable but presidential-looking man who somehow rose to become the President of the United States. Gladwell suggests that people elected Harding because of a failure of rapid cognition: in their haste to vote, they made a decision based on a “thin slice” of evidence (his stately, distinguished appearance), and paid for their mistake.

So Gladwell finally arrives at a point that was, perhaps, obvious from the beginning: rapid cognition is by definition prejudicial, in the sense that it involves making judgments about the world before all the evidence is in. For the rest of the chapter, however, Gladwell will attempt to argue that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater”; in other words, just because some rapid cognition leads to poor decision making, we shouldn’t avoid rapid cognition altogether—it still has some legitimate uses.

The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. As it turns out for example, of the fifty thousand African Americans who have taken the Race IAT so far, about half of them, like me, have stronger associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good.

Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses the IAT, a test in which people are asked to associate a list of words with one of two categories. The IAT has many different applications, but one of these applications is that it can measure people’s propensity to discriminate against certain ideas and concepts. For example, when people are asked to categorize words as either “good or African American” or “bad or white,” they complete the test far more slowly, and make more mistakes, than they do when the categories are “bad or African American” or “good or white.” These results might suggest that people (even black people, as Gladwell states here) in North America have been conditioned, over the course of a lifetime, to associate negative ideas with black people—the very definition of racism.

But Gladwell’s real point is that, contrary to what it might seem, the IAT doesn’t prove that most people “are” racist. Because of the power of the adaptive unconscious, it is possible to be a tolerant, unprejudiced person in one’s beliefs, and yet make some prejudiced judgments in the heat of the moment. Even if the conscious, rational mind is capable of tolerance and understanding, the adaptive unconscious might harbor some prejudicial thoughts and ideas.

He may make a million snap judgments about a customer's needs and state of mind, but he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her appearance. He assumes that everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car.

Related Characters: Bob Golomb
Page Number: 90-91
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses Bob Golomb, a brilliant car salesman who sells huge numbers of cars every month because he doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of their age, race, gender, etc. In the car business, discrimination of all kinds is common: car salesmen have only a couple minutes to get potential clients’ attention, and so they fall back on old, unfair stereotypes—for example, they direct most of their attention to older white men, assuming that old white men are more likely to buy cars than, for example, young black women. The point of the passage is that Bob Golomb sells more cars because he ignores stereotyping of this kind altogether. Instead of assuming that certain kinds of people are more likely to buy cars than others, he treats all people the same.

The crux of the passage, however, is that Golomb continues to thin-slice his clients. He doesn’t ignore people on the basis of their race or age, but he does pay close attention to their facial cues, mannerisms, expressions, etc. Thus, the passage is a good example of how people can practice rapid cognition without being prejudiced—and, in fact, how rapid cognition can actually counteract prejudice at times.

Chapter 4 Quotes

This is why, in many ways, the choice of Paul Van Riper to head the opposing Red Team was so inspired, because if Van Riper stood for anything, it was the antithesis of that position. Van Riper didn't believe you could lift the fog of war.

Related Characters: Paul Van Riper
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

In the year 2000, the Pentagon established the “Millennium Challenge”—a war game between two mock-armies, the Red Team and the Blue Team. The purpose of the Millennium Challenge was to find the optimal way to wage a war and to test military strategies and new technology. Thus, the Red and Blue Team were given two opposing strategies. The Blue Team opted for a strategy that involved getting as much information as possible. Commanders on the Blue Team weighed every piece of evidence carefully, never once acting on a mere “hunch.” The Red Team, headed by the charismatic former Vietnam commander Paul Van Riper, was very different. Van Riper had a unique philosophy of war: he believed that war is inherently “foggy”—there will always be a limit to the amount of information commanders can obtain about the opposing side. Therefore, Van Riper believed, a good commander must act on hunches and intuitions.

Van Riper’s philosophy of war is very close to Blink’s philosophy of life. While the Pentagon thought that it’s possible to make the best decision using technology, information, and rationality—i.e., using the conscious mind only—Van Riper thought that some of the best decisions are based on hunches—i.e., that good decisions make use of the adaptive unconscious. For the rest of the chapter, Gladwell shows that the adaptive unconscious can be an important component of good decision-making, whether in war, comedic improvisation, or medicine.

Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice - perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again - and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. This is the critical lesson of improv, too, and it is also a key to understanding the puzzle of Millennium Challenge: spontaneity isn’t random.

Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage discusses the relationship between randomness and spontaneity. While common sense might say that spontaneous actions are random—unpremeditated, unrehearsed, unpredictable—Gladwell argues that, paradoxically, it’s possible to practice spontaneity. Basketball players, police officers, soldiers, and all sorts of other professionals have to spend years training themselves how to act in the heat of the moment. In doing so, they optimize their split-second decision-making skills.

The concept of practicing spontaneity is a little confusing, and Gladwell will spend more time analyzing it carefully. For now, it’s important to notice that just because people practice spontaneity doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand their spontaneity any better. Even a tennis pro like Andre Agassi, who’s practiced for thousands and thousands of hours, can’t explain the way he plays. Even after all that practice, the source of spontaneity (the adaptive unconscious) remains behind a “locked door.”

Suppose I were to ask you to take a pen and paper and write down in as much detail as you can what your person looks like. Describe her face. What color was her hair? What was she wearing? Was she wearing any jewelry? Believe it or not, you will now do a lot worse at picking that face out of a lineup. Chapter 4

Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a good example of “verbal overshadowing”—the process by which the rational, conscious mind interferes with the functioning of the adaptive unconscious mind. If you were asked to describe the person who served you your coffee this morning, Gladwell says, you could probably picture them pretty clearly, even if you didn’t know them well. But if you were then asked to describe this person’s appearance in words, and then pick the person out of a lineup, you probably wouldn’t be able to do so. The act of rationalizing and literalizing your unconscious memories destroys the original memories of the person’s face.

The passage shows why it’s so important to keep the actions of the unconscious mind behind a “locked door”—in the act of “opening” the door, we run the risk of interfering with the unconscious mind’s actions. Furthermore, the passage reinforces the idea that rapid cognition can be more insightful and accurate than thoughtful consideration—we can “blink” and remember someone’s face, but when we think about it too much, we undermine our own memories.

What Goldman's algorithm indicates, though, is that the role of those other factors is so small in determining what is happening to the man right now that an accurate diagnosis can be made without them. In fact - and this is a key point in explaining the breakdown of Blue Team that day in the Gulf - that extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.

Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chicago, the Cook County Hospital introduced a controversial new algorithm for assessing people’s likelihood of heart disease. The algorithm was controversial because it boiled the necessary evidence down to only a couple key points—ECG readings, history of heart disease, fluid in the lungs, etc. And yet the hospital administrators found that by using the simplified algorithm, doctors dramatically increased their success rate with diagnosing heart disease.

As the passage explains, the algorithm’s success is startling because, ordinarily speaking, it’s good to have as much evidence as possible, especially when making a decision as important as a heart disease diagnosis. Gladwell’s point, though, is that at times more evidence isn’t really that helpful. Indeed, more evidence can actually cloud the decision-making process, forcing doctors (or, as the passage suggests, soldiers during the Millennium Challenge) to get “bogged down” in excessive detail.

Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage is a good summing up of Gladwell’s conclusions in this chapter. Gladwell has shown that excessive information, contrary to popular belief, isn’t necessarily better. There are some situations—particularly high-stakes situations—in which it’s best to have a smaller, more manageable amount of information.

As the passage makes clear, Gladwell isn’t saying that doctors, soldiers, and other professionals should always make decisions according to their hunches. Rather, the best decision is often one that balances intuition with evidence, instead of veering too far in either direction. Evidence, training, and logic are, of course, highly important components of any successful decision—but they’re not the be-all, end-all. There are times, especially in high-stakes situations, when we have to embrace uncertainty, spontaneity, and improvisation.

Chapter 5 Quotes

f you double the size of the chips in chocolate chip ice cream and say on the package, "New! Bigger Chocolate Chips!" and charge five to ten cents more, that seems honest and fair. But if you put your ice cream in a round as opposed to a rectangular container and charge five to ten cents more, that seems like you're pulling the wool over people's eyes. If you think about it, though, there really isn't any practical difference between those two things. Chapter 5

Page Number: 164-165
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell explores the psychology of advertising and packaging. Studies show that it’s possible to make a product seem more appealing by packaging it in novel ways (for instance, it’s been shown that food products are often more appealing when they’re wrapped in red packaging). Big companies like Coca-Cola spend millions of dollars to find out the best ways to market and advertise their products.

One might say that it’s immoral or unethical for companies to spend so much time and money researching the psychology of advertising. In essence, companies are trying to trick their customers into enjoying their product more without changing the product itself. Gladwell’s rejoinder is that marketing and advertising a product aren’t any more or less “honest” than altering the actual product, because a consumer’s overall perception of a product incorporates both gustatory and non-gustatory elements (in other words, when I enjoy a chocolate-chip cookie, I’m not just tasting the cookie itself; I’m enjoying the shape of the cookie, the color of the wrapping paper it came in, etc.). For better or worse, the packaging and advertising for a product is a part of the product, because it’s a part of the way people experience that product. Therefore, there’s nothing necessarily unethical about a corporation spending a lot of money on advertising.

By making people think about jam, [the psychological researchers] turned them into jam idiots.

Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

The chapter ends with another good illustration of the antagonistic relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. When subjects were asked to rank a series of jams from best to worst, it was found that the subjects had excellent taste—they gave the jams the same rankings as a group of trained jam experts. But when a comparable group of subjects was asked to explain why they did or didn’t like the same jams, the subjects lost their exceptional taste. In short, the act of rationalizing and explaining one’s tastes can interfere with taste itself.

The passage reiterates one of Gladwell’s key points—that the explanations for snap judgments should remain behind a locked door. Furthermore, the passage suggests that polls and test audiences aren’t always the best ways to determine what people do and don’t like. When polls ask too many questions, the poll’s participants may change their original answers, just like the subjects in the jam experiment. It’s possible that many excellent products and talented musicians never make it big—not because they’re bad but because they don’t “test” well.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The Diallo shooting, in other words, falls into a kind of gray area, the middle ground between deliberate and accidental.

Related Characters: Amadou Diallo
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the book, Gladwell studies the Amadou Diallo shooting—a tragic case in which plainclothes police officers shot Diallo, an unarmed immigrant in his own apartment building. While many consider the Diallo shooting to be a textbook example of the racism of American law enforcement, Gladwell offers a more nuanced point. While he doesn’t excuse the police officers for their actions, he suggests that it’s not necessarily true that the officers were racists. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, the officers experienced an error of rapid cognition—they fell back on instinctive, prejudicial behaviors. Gladwell will show how, during the course of a police chase, the heart rate can approach 175 beats per minute—at which point the average human being can barely think at all.

The biggest point to draw from this passage is that Gladwell draws a grey area between deliberate and accidental, encouraging us to rethink the usual categories of free will. Most people believe that humans are free to choose what do; therefore, it follows that people can either be guilty or innocent of a crime. However, Gladwell has already shown that free will isn’t as powerful as we’d like to believe; there are cases when people’s unconscious minds push them in a certain direction, even if they don’t consciously realize it. In this sense, Gladwell suggest, perhaps it’s possible to be both guilty and innocent of a crime.

Most police officers - well over 90 percent - go their whole career without ever firing at anyone, and those who do describe the experience as so unimaginably stressful that it seems reasonable to ask if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism.

Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell theorizes that the four plainclothes police officers who shot at Amadou Diallo were in a state of “temporary autism” after chasing Diallo into his apartment building. This is a surprising idea because, one would think, confronting suspects is “old hat” for a police officer. However, Gladwell points out that even for seasoned police officers, a dangerous confrontation involving firing a gun at a suspect is a pretty rare occurrence; indeed, the vast majority of police officers never fire a weapon at anyone.

Gladwell goes on to posit that when police officers are thrust into high-stakes life-or-death situations, they can’t think clearly. As a result, police officers fall back on their instincts—and as a result, they sometimes fall back on racism and bigotry—even if they would consciously disavow racist ideas. In a state of “temporary autism,” of the kind brought about in a high-stakes situation, police officers can’t interpret people’s facial expressions—thus, in the case of Amadou Diallo, the police officers couldn’t see that Diallo was clearly frightened and panicking—had they noticed, they might not have shot Diallo.

What police training does, at its best, is teach officers how to keep themselves out of this kind of trouble; to avoid the risk of momentary autism. In a traffic stop, for instance, the officer is trained to park behind the car. If it's at night, he shines his brights directly into the car. He walks toward the car on the driver's side, then stops and stands just behind the driver, shining his flashlight over the shoulder onto his or her lap.

Page Number: 234-235
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage discusses the format of police training. Ideally, police officers are trained to follow a strict procedure that minimizes the number of occasions during which they might have to deal with sudden, high-stakes situations. For instance, when a police officer pulls over a driver, they are supposed to stand to the side of the driver, so that if the driver suddenly thrusts his hand into his pocket (as if to draw a weapon), the officer will have an extra split-second to decide what to do. In this way, police officer training is designed to reduce the number of times when an officer might have to make a snap judgment—for example, whether or not the suspect is reaching for a gun or a wallet.

The passage is a good example of Gladwell’s balanced, nuanced approach to discussing rapid cognition. Gladwell isn’t saying that rapid cognition is always ideal. Indeed, in the case of law enforcement, it’s pretty obvious that rapid cognition can lead to some pretty tragic results—for instance, the death of Amadou Diallo. Thus, when a police officer deals with a suspect, they should try to follow routine as thoroughly as possible, instead of depending excessively on rapid cognition. Nevertheless, Gladwell isn’t saying that rapid cognition is always bad, either. Indeed, there are many situations when a police officer must make split-second, life-or-death decisions. In those situations, the police officer should be trained to read facial cues and respond to body language—i.e., the officer should improve their rapid cognitive abilities.

Look at how the officer’s experience and skill allowed him to stretch out that fraction of time, to slow the situation down, to keep gathering information until the last possible moment. He watches the gun come out. He sees the pearly grip. He tracks the direction of the muzzle. He waits for the kid to decide whether to pull the gun up or simply to drop it - and all the while, even as he tracks the progress of the gun, he is also watching the kid's face, to see whether he is dangerous or simply frightened. Is there a more beautiful example of a snap judgment?

Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Toward the end of the chapter, Gladwell discusses a case in which a police officer held a suspect at gunpoint, contemplated shooting him when he reached for his pocket, and then didn't. The police officer noticed that the “kid” was holding a gun, but “something told him” to give the kid a chance and wait a split second longer.

As Gladwell interprets it, the story is a great example of how rapid cognition can actually be a boon to law enforcement. At times, it’s bad for police officers to depend excessively on snap judgments; indeed, it was arguably the four plainclothes officers’ reliance on snap judgments that led to the shooting of Amadou Diallo. However, rapid cognition can be a life-saver in other cases. When officers train themselves to respond to facial cues—as the police officer in this story did—they can use their instincts to decide whether or not to fire their guns. In this case, for example, an officer made a snap judgment, responding to the expression on the kid’s face, which probably saved the kid’s life.

Conclusion Quotes

When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was.

Related Characters: Julie Landsman
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell discusses the rise of blind auditions in the world of classical music. Beginning in the 1980s, orchestras began auditioning performers from behind a screen, so that selection panels couldn’t tell if the performers were male or female. Amazingly, orchestras began to hire more and more women, where previously, women had been de facto excluded from the world of classical music altogether. In Gladwell’s terminology, the introduction of blind auditioning replaced one kind of rapid cognition with another. Before the 1980s, selection panels who auditioned female performers may have made snap judgments about them before they even began to play—because the performers were women, in other words, the selection panels may have been biased against them, no matter how well they played. But when blind auditions became commonplace, however, selection panels could no longer discriminate against women. When the talented performer Julie Landsman auditioned for one prestigious orchestra, the selection panel felt that Landsman was a great musician within just a couple seconds of her performance.

With this passage, Gladwell ends his book on a positive note. Rapid cognition is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. However, at its best, rapid cognition can be a powerful weapon against prejudice and discrimination, helping Julie Landsman rise through the classical music world.