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Blink and You’ll Miss It: Intuitive Thought, Decision and Action

March 24, 2013 6 comments

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times, and (in my opinion) an acute social and political observer. He is not an academic, but is very well read in psychology and sociology. He wrote a book in 2011 called The Social Animal which deals in part with the role of subconscious mental processes in decision making. This is a fascinating area of emerging science, and not without controversy.

That same year, Brooks gave a talk in front of a panel at Harvard, and opened himself to criticism. I’m going to take that talk and discussion as a starting point. It’s not necessary to watch the whole session to follow the thesis, but I’m including it for reference.

As far as I can remember, there has always been a fascination about unconscious processes and intuitive thought. I remember self-help product commercials from the late eighties that would use the power of “subliminal communication” to speak directly to your unconscious mind. Fundamentally we all understand that the brain holds mysterious processes yielding incredible creative and intuitive results; everything from a poet’s sudden inspiration in the middle of the night to a second baseman’s flawless turn of a 6-4-3 double play.

For mainstream readers, this fascination culminated in Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Blink, which further detailed the seemingly limitless intelligence of intuitive thought. After closing that book, one is left with the sense that many problems would be solved by trusting our unconscious impulses at the expense of rational decision making. You can see how, for many, this could be an incredibly seductive thought.

Brooks shares this fascination with unconscious mental processes, although he makes finer distinctions. His interest in the subject came from his political observations, where he noticed that policymakers and economists tend to assume that humans are thoroughly rational actors, and legislate accordingly. His thesis is that we need to better understand and appreciate our unconscious mental processes, which seem also to be very intelligent and might add a context and richness missing from policy and cultural discussion.

The Social Animal (David Brooks book)

The Social Animal (David Brooks book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He notes, for example, that humans tend to emphasize things that can be measured: test scores, income, performance indicators, etc. We therefore, he says, have a rich vocabulary for discussing the tangible. We are much worse at articulating that which is based on the intangible: emotional health, character aspects, biases, and other abstractions that are based in emotion or intuitive thought. He argues that our emotions (an intuitive process), far from acting against reason as the classicists thought, are part of our advanced mental apparatus for ascribing meaning and value, and therefore an integral part of rational decision making. We therefore lose a great deal when we marginalize the roles of emotion and intuition.

Brooks’ argument is interesting, and I would like to begin my commentary by sharing what I believe to be the best first principles of psychology. In a way, I am lucky that I haven’t been exploring the field for all that long, because we are typically most influenced by the thoughts that we absorb early on, and I had the great good fortune to start this blog right about the time that Daniel Kahneman published his excellent research retrospective Thinking, Fast and Slow. Read more…

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