Snap Decisions: the Wisdom of the Unconscious

How do you make decisions? Quickly? Intuitively? Carefully, after studying all the options?

We live in a culture that values cautious decision-making. At least in the business circles I work in, everyone assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that goes into making it.

But psychologists and brain scientists tell us otherwise: conscious decisions are often made unconsciously based on emotional instincts that occur in a flash. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book Blink.

In another example, 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 us of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.

We use our adaptive unconscious whenever we meet someone for the first time, when we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, and when we’re under stress and have to act quickly.

But is this a good thing or bad? When does it fail us? When should we pay more attention to our gut reactions and instinctive feelings?

I think most of us are highly suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition, probably because we can’t always control it or analyze it.

This part of the brain is a highly refined decision-making system capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information. And that can be scary. How can we rely on decisions when we haven’t considered all the facts or options?

And yet, from what I’m reading, decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

Our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled, if we take the time to learn about them and harness their power and wisdom.

According to Gladwell, “When it comes to the task of understanding ourselves and our world, I think we pay too much attention to those grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments.”…”the task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”

What do you think? What’s been your experience with snap decisions?

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