Friday, April 10, 2009

Blink all you want but think

We blink all the time, as naturally as we breathe. However, blinking is also one of those few motor functions that we can control, at least for a time. Recall the blinking contest we used to have when young, out-staring each other until the eyes got so dilated that we began to see stars. For example, Don’t Blink is an exhortation to stay attentive, calling on the mind to exercise control over the eye-lid motion.

On the other hand, the phrase, in the blink of an eye, describes a fleeting moment of seeing, a happenstance so quick that the brain has hardly anytime to register and decode, a scintillating flash that apparently leaves no trace.

As an engineer, I have been trained to be analytical, to consider all things from all possible angles, to think long and hard, leaving no stones unturned so to speak, but within the time, budget, and resource constraints. So we engineers often have to base our decisions on imperfect information, to exercise judgment that, ironically, comes from bad experience. Indeed, uncertainty is a given in our profession. The natural, and actually logical, tendency under these circumstances is to err on the side of conservatism through the use of safety factors, and redundancies, sometimes too liberally at the expense of cost.

Invariably, these decisions are made after comprehensive studies and painstaking deliberations within a shortened time span, but never in the blink of an eye. This is simply because engineering works have a typically long gestation period, sometimes stretching into decades such as the Delta Works in Holland, which is a mammoth flood protection project started in the early 1950s after numerous studies, and was also accompanied by many more concurrent studies during construction and completed just before the turn of the present millennium.

Thus, engineers are accustomed to these planning horizons, some even protracted, inherent in engineering works, except perhaps in emergency response when calamities hit or are about to hit such as those in the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunami and hurricane landfalls. But even in emergencies, split second decisions are a rarity. There is usually time for deliberations to allow for informed decisions.

It is then understandable that I would view the book BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Co., NY, 2005), a copy of which I bought at the Temple Terrace Used Book Center some time ago, with healthy skepticism, healthy because I hold that authors of note, an esteemed category to which Mr. Gladwell definitely belongs because of the success of his prior publications, must have some insightful views to share upon which I will reserve judgment until I have read the book.

And that I did, over the last few days, a rare accomplishment for me these days since my now regular habit of intermittent reading means that I could only finish a book in weeks or even months.

When viewed in the context of the author’s tasks in writing the book as enumerated in pg. 14-15 (Introduction: The Statue that Didn’t Look Right), the expose does make sense when one goes beyond its cover that has the subtitle “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. These tasks are:

a) to convince the readers that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately”;

b) To acknowledge that our adapted unconsciousness, the celebratory source of our power of the glance, and the worthy counterpart to consciousness that is the seat of our considered decisions, is fallible, and by extension, to identify and understand the reasons when these powers of rapid cognition would go awry; and

c) To convince the readers that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled”.

And there are a litany of rear-world situations (in battlefield while engaged in tactical combat; in a basketball game when sub-second heroics matter; in emergency room when prompt diagnostics and response can mean the difference between life and death; and in improv shows when a moment of lapse can ruin the whole show) as cited in the book that lend credibility to the notion enshrined in (a), (b) and (c) above.

I especially like this particular quote by Keith Payne, a psychologist, quoted in the book (pg. 233) to caution us on one specific circumstance of (b):

When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereo-types and prejudices, even one we may not necessarily endorse or believe.”

In a nutshell, I enjoy reading the book enormously, not the least of which is the section on autism, and the notion of mind-blindness. It’s definitely not an indictment of our thinking faculty as one would judge by its cover. And I realize that thin-slicing, instinct, hunch, gut feeling, and an assortment of other names subsumed under the BLINK, all have a place in decision making. Conversely, there is also a place for THINK, the rational analysis, the deliberate assessment, the elaborate evaluation that engineers are enamored and wont to doing by training, the risk of paralysis by analysis notwithstanding.

And understandably so, THINK: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t be Made in the Blink (2006) has been conceived as a repartee to BLINK by Michael LeGault. Maintaining the same position as before, I would too refrain from judging the book by its cover, though by kindred spirit I may be better aligned with Mr. LeGault’s thinking by virtue of my professional training. Fortunately, all this would be made clear soon as I had just received a call from the Temple Terrace Public Library this morning that my reserved copy of THINK is now available for collection. I figure I would take the same length of time to finish reading THINK whence I would most likely echo the sentiment of this particular reader (Dave Lakhani as quoted here):

This [THINK] is a book about critical thinking, Blink is a book about intuitive thinking.”

But we shall see.

1 comment:

Lee Wei Joo said...

Fascinating account of spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision making. Sometimes the subconscious mind manifests itself in "blink" scenarios.