The moment when your unconscious comes to a decision

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” came recommended by a good friend – and I was fortunate enough to find a copy in the books-on-CD section of the library – read by the author.  Listening to a book in this way is not something I’ve done before, and I really liked hearing it with the emphasis and inflections the author had in mind when he wrote it.

Blink explores the way we come to understand things first – below the surface – with our unconscious mind.  In some cases, the quick version or thin slice of an event can give us a surprisingly accurate evaluation, and in other instances, we can be completely misled.


Seeing the real person in an instant

In the best of cases, one can see just a small amount and come to an accurate conclusion.  Malcolm uses examples of relationships and personalities to explain this.

He’s found a researcher that can predict what relationships will last by examining a short portion of a discussion between a couple.  He’s also found that you can get quite a bit of information about an individual’s personality simply by looking at their bedroom for a half hour…

But it isn’t always accurate.

Completely misreading the situation

But just as these short interactions can be successful in some instances, they appear to go awry in others.

Malcolm uses an instance of art forgery to open the book and get us interested, and the story of Amadou Diallo to close the book – and helps us see one instance of how individuals interpreted the situation and sequence of events badly.

Orienteering – thinking under pressure

One of his conclusions is that when faced with critical and stressful situations – individuals use less of their active brainpower, and unconscious patterns can take over.

And I found myself evaluating a situation similar to this the other morning on a run.  The purpose of my run that morning was to stress myself running uphill on a repeated loop.  The third time through, I noticed that I was getting over a fallen tree with my right foot each time.

If all thing were equal, I ought to be using whichever foot is on stride at the time, but here it was my right every time.

And I was wondering if I was using my right because it was stronger than my left. (And I think it is a little bit stronger)  If that were the case, I’d want to do some conditioning to strengthen that left leg…

But on the fourth loop, the answer jumped out at me – the tree was actually tilted across the trail – and was about six inches taller on the left side than the right.  My unconscious was evaluating the situation and deciding that going over the log with my right foot would save effort, and entail less risk than the left – and took the steps required to ensure that it happened that way. (without every telling my conscious mind)

And to drive the point home, I reversed directions for the next loop – and automatically used my left foot now that the lower side was on the left.

Thinking under stress

But beyond my example of running through the woods, the sport of orienteering challenges the participants in exactly the way that Gladwell says induces bad decisions – under pressure.

Each competitor must move as fast as practical for the terrain and navigate precisely.  A competitor that moves slower than others will not win the race.  A competitor that runs past his or her ability to think will end up with a navigation mistake, taking them out of the winners circle just as easily.


This is a colorful term that a competitor uses to describe a mental error on the course. 

After running hard for thirty or forty minutes, an orienteer makes an amazingly bad decision. Reaching a trail as intended, they turn left instead of right.

They look down at their map and suddenly realize that things don’t match up between what they’re seeing and what the map says they should see if they really were standing where they think they are…

And just as Gladwell suggests in Blink, the solution is to add time – to allow the brain to once again think clearly.  And to get back on track.

Listen to the book

I’ve told you to read books before – but this time see if you can listen to Gladwell’s book.  You’ll be able to drive down the road and listen to the stories. (I did find it hard to find time to “read” the book until I had a long trip planned)  If you can’t find the book on CD or that option won’t work for you, get the book.

Either way – I think you’ll appreciate the lessons it contains.

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