Malcolm Gladwell

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Blink can help.

Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious 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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Blink, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

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

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Rapid Cognition, “Thin-slicing,” and the Adaptive Unconscious appears in each chapter of Blink. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Blink LitChart as a printable PDF.
Blink PDF

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:

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:
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:

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:

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:
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:

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:
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:

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:

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:
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:

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:

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:

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:

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

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

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

Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

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:

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:

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:
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: