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Rationality vs. Intuition Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious Theme Icon
Rapid Cognition and Prejudice Theme Icon
Rationality vs. Intuition Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
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Rationality vs. Intuition Theme Icon

In order to talk about the psychology of human behavior, Gladwell analyzes the adaptive unconscious: the part of the mind that acts according to instinct and intuition. But, as Gladwell notes, there is a problem—and maybe even a contradiction—in the idea of analyzing intuition. Sometimes, when people try to talk about their snap judgments, they find themselves unable to explain them at all. In other cases, the act of talking about intuition causes people to lose their intuition momentarily. These cases bring up an important question—to what extent is it possible to analyze and explain intuition, and, more generally, to what extent is it possible to control or develop the adaptive unconscious?

In the second half of his book, Gladwell shows how the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind can be antagonistic. Often, people do things without being able to explain why: in Gladwell’s terminology, people are capable of exercising the adaptive unconscious without being aware that they’re using it. As a result, they can’t explain why they hold certain beliefs or perform certain actions, beyond a “hunch.”

Sometimes, a new problem arises when people are asked to explain their hunches; i.e., when people are forced to rationalize the behavior of the adaptive unconscious—they lose the power of that “hunch” altogether. For example, a psychological study found that subjects are intuitively good at evaluating the tastes of different kinds of jam. But when they’re asked to explain the reasons underlying their preferences, subjects turn into “jam idiots”—they lose their sophisticated tastes and their ability to remember different flavors. Gladwell terms this process—in which the use of the rational mind prevents the unconscious mind from functioning normally—“verbal overshadowing.” The implications of Gladwell’s argument are enormous: there seems to be a limit to how much we can understand our own hunches and snap judgments. While there may, in fact, be rational explanations for why people get hunches and snap judgments, our attempts to understand and explain them can interfere with the snap judgments themselves. Gladwell uses the metaphor of a “locked door” to describe the behavior of the adaptive unconscious—sometimes, it’s best for rapid cognition to remain “behind the door” and beyond rational explanation.

Gladwell believes that humans can teach themselves to improve their snap judgments through practice and experience (for instance, he argues that police officers should be trained in facial recognition). Nevertheless, his points about the locked door of the mind suggest that there is a limit to how greatly people can “tinker” with their own intuitions. Put another way, intuition can be developed and strengthened, but not always explained.

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Rationality vs. Intuition ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Rationality vs. Intuition appears in each Chapter of Blink. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Rationality vs. Intuition Quotes in Blink

Below you will find the important quotes in Blink related to the theme of Rationality vs. Intuition.
Introduction Quotes

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.


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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.

Chapter 2 Quotes

We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that - sometimes - we're better off that way.

Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell introduces a strange and somewhat frustrating idea: sometimes we have to accept that it’s possible to know things without knowing why we know them. In other words, we need to learn how to trust our intuitions without understanding them completely. The reason that this is the case is that most of our snap judgments are unconscious—since they take place in the adaptive unconscious area of the mind. In other words, humans will make decisions and judgments—hunches—without being able to explain them rationally. Almost by definition, a hunch can’t be explained: only rational decisions can be explained fully, since rational decisions originate in the conscious mind.

In the rest of the book, Gladwell gives examples of some of the pitfalls of explaining hunches and snap judgments. He shows that when we try to put our tastes or our memories into words, we lose our tastes and memories: our rational thoughts overshadow and drown out our unconscious judgments. Thus, Gladwell concludes, we should accept that it’s okay not to know why we know certain things—why we prefer one kind of jam to another, for example. Any attempt to study why we have hunches could interfere with the hunches themselves.

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 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

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.

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.