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Posted on: Thursday, 30 August 2007 by Rajiv Popat

Malcolm Gladwell toys with the idea of “snap judgements” and how our brain makes snap judgements in his book - blink. He describes how one can learn the art of “thinking without thinking”. He calls this the art of blinking.

Some refer to this as “listening to your heart” or “gut feeling”. Others refer to this as “going by your instincts”; Malcolm, calls this “blinking” and presents the whole concept using a simple yet distinctly elegant and factual examples.

The book is full of tons of examples of snap judgements and a number of experiments which are eye-openers. I’ll never be able to do justice to them by wrapping them up in three lines but here's my attempt to tease you to go read the book. Some examples the book illustrates rather articulately:

  1. An individual realizing in the first minute of watching a statue purchased by a museum for 10 million dollars, that it’s fake, when a team of scientists takes 14 months of study and calculations to come to a completely wrong conclusion before buying it.
  2. Psychiatrics using the ability to blink and techniques for predicting how long a marriage will last just by listening to two people talk for less than 3 minutes about a topic which has nothing to do with their marriage.
  3. The ability to find out if a candidate is a right candidate for an the job, during an interview in less than a couple of minutes; sometimes even without talking to him.

Too much thinking is dangerous. Malcolm questions our traditional knowledge of how a lot of us take decisions:

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 in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making.

He warns:

But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgements and first impressions can offer much better means of making sense of the world.

He explains why we, as human beings, lean towards basing our decisions on calculations and data and then goes on to explain why this approach is fundamentally flawed and why too much deliberation, data and particularly calculations before taking decisions can be devastating at times.

The book starts with the same lines as Steve Job’s video on Life and Connecting the Dots (using a  follow-your-heart-and-intuition kind-of approach) and then this book goes beyond with Practical and eye opening examples. A must read that I would highly recommend for anyone who has ever hesitated about trusting his gut feeling. Even if you always go with snap judgements this book offers new insights and perspectives which are eye opening.

<Aside> Personally, my life has been full of snap judgements and this book offers support and reconfirms (in a different way), what I've always believed in. But this post, dear reader, is not about me or my life. It’s about snap judgements, so I shall try not to digress. Let's move on with the topic. </Aside>

As programmers we are supposed to blink all the time and yet there's only a really small group of programmers in our profession capable of blinking well. I see countless developers debugging through their code - line by line and working for hours when a 3 second blink, instinct, gut feeling (whatever you call it) would have told them exactly where the bug lies and maybe even given them major hints on how to fix it.

According to Malcolm, this power of blinking is not a special gift that only a few have. He believes it’s something all of us have.

But, as Malcolm puts it we often “override” our blinks with so-called logical thinking, facts and figures and take completely wrong decisions.

I see developers once in a while thinking too hard, wasting hours, to fix that nested if-else complication which has resulted in a nasty logical bug when all they need to do it go out grab a cup of hot chocolate, come back and blink!

Almost Ninety Percent of all performance related issues that I’ve fixed in my development career have been a result of blinking. A hunch about what is causing the system to slow down. All the research, data and figures have just been add-ons; at times, even a waste of time. A lot of times, the data and figures have also driven me in the completely wrong direction.

The concept of blinking seems to work in all aspects of life starting from taking the most complex of decisions, recruiting folks, to fixing bugs and logical errors in code.

Fellow developers and dear readers, when in doubt, Don’t Think - Blink!

(Now go get your own copy of the book! :))