Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.
– Malcolm Gladwell
The above quote came up on Twitter this morning, and I started thinking – how much of our conscious and critical thinking is “deliberate” anyway? I didn’t choose to think about Malcolm Gladwell and his books this morning. I didn’t have any actual need to. And yet when that quotation appeared I decided to go with my intuition or my instincts, or a combination of the two, and searched for Gladwell’s book “Blink” which I knew would be somewhere in the house – almost certainly in either the bedroom, the sitting room or the “office”.
It’s an interesting book, and one that makes a very good case for the importance of instinctual intelligence and intuitive intelligence. The problem with the book is that Gladwell fails to make a proper distinction between these two key intelligences.
Our 3Di three-dimensional intelligences model makes a very clear, very logical and very simple distinction between them, but one that many of us find hard to contemplate. Indeed, we’ve come across many individuals who can’t seem to accept that “instinctual intelligence” exists at all.
Pure instinctual intelligence is a facility that our brain has for instantaneous judgements and reactions to those judgements. It’s an intelligence possessed by all living things. No thought is involved. A plant will grow instinctively towards the light. A predator will instinctively kill its prey. An antelope will instinctively get up and walk or run within minutes of being born. Instinct is crucial for survival, right down to the level of breathing, drinking and eating.
Intuition, on the other hand, operates on a different plane. It works in the opposite way to the senses (physical intelligence), which feed intelligence into our conscious and unconscious brains via sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Intuition needs no external stimulus. Through the power of intuition we find thoughts, ideas, solutions to problems, etc, welling up from the depths of our unconscious, and this happens most often when we’re in a quiet and relaxed state – possibly out walking, lying in a bath, taking a shower, waking from sleep. It’s our “inner voice”, and it works through a direct grasp of “things as they are” – without interference from logic or rationality.
Since it’s the opposite of physical intelligence 3Di calls it metaphysical intelligence, and sometimes ‘spiritual intelligence’. Whatever comes from our soul, from the true essence of ourselves, and represents our individual spirit – be it positive or negative, can surely be seen as spiritual. This is an embedded and attached intelligence that is truly personal, nothing to do with any ‘god’, and certainly nothing to do with religion.
Bearing all this in mind, let’s take a quick tour of Gladwell’s thoughts as expressed in “Blink. The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. [It’s a pity Gladwell or his publishers couldn’t resist the quip and the wordplay in that subtitle, since this is most definitely not about thinking. It’s simply about instinctual intelligence and about intuitive intelligence.]
The part of our brain that leaps to conclusions is called the adaptive unconscious, and the study of this kind of decision making is one of the most important new fields in psychology.
This new notion . . . is thought of . . . as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings . . . a decision-making apparatus that’s capable of making very quick judgements based on very little information.
As the psychologist Timothy D Wilson writes in his book Strangers to Ourselves: “The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious – just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated manner.”
This is not always the case. In worst-case scenarios individuals jump to false conclusions, work on false assumptions, habitually and inappropriately resort to ‘flight’ and/or ‘fight’, and allow paranoid feelings and destructive emotions to become drivers of behaviour. It’s for these reasons that instincts in both very young children and often in mature adults need to be carefully assessed, nurtured and educated. The lives of teachers and senior managers in schools are full of incidents that require quiet, careful consideration of why certain children simply took flight from situations or resorted to aggression as a coping behaviour. These are often key moments in children’s lives when education or re-education simply has to take place.
Wilson says that we toggle back and forth between our conscious and unconscious modes of thinking, depending on the situation.
Of course we do. In best-case scenarios all of our intelligences are operating simultaneously and in parallel, with our brains attending to one or other of them sequentially and within micro-seconds moving from one to the next, and back again. Those who hesitate for too long in choosing whether to jump to the left or the right when about to be hit by a bike or a bus are likely to end up in hospital or a morgue.
We are inately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition. We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don’t judge a book by its cover. We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making.
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.
Blink is not just a celebration of the power of the glance, however. I’m also interested in those moments when our instincts betray us. Our unconscious is a powerful force. But it’s fallible. It can be thrown off, distracted, and disabled.
Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests and emotions and sentiments. So, when should we trust our instincts, and when should we wary of them? Answering that question is the second task of Blink. It is possible to learn when to listen to that powerful onboard computer and when to be wary of it.
The third and most important task of this book is to convince you that our snap judgements and first impressions can be educated and controlled. Just as we can teach ourselves to think logically and deliberately, we can also teach ourselves to make better snap judgements. The power of knowing, in those first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves.
When it comes to the task of understanding ourselves [personal intelligence] and our world [intellectual], I think we pay too little attention to those fleeting moments. What would happen if we took our instincts seriously . . . and began examining our own decision-making and behaviour through the most powerful of microscopes? I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on our shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled . . . and on and on. And if we were to combine all those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world.
[All of the above quotes are taken from the Introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, published by Penguin Culture.]
There are many issues raised within this for teachers and for parents to consider – as well as anyone who’s interested in ways to create better communities and a better world.
Another of Gladwell’s books that’s worth reading is Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell reiterates that intellect or IQ alone will achieve very little. Other sorts of intelligence plus high levels of creativity and imagination are essential for high achievement.