What goes through our minds when we need to make a
split-second decision–in the blink of an eye? How do police officers
and emergency responders make life-and-death decisions in mere moments?
What is that feeling we get in the pit of our stomach that something is wrong? Can you know within six minutes of meeting someone, that you want to go on a date?
Malcolm Gladwell takes on these questions (and more!) in his latest best-selling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking.
the early eighties, the J. Paul Getty Museum paid nearly ten million
dollars for a marble statue from the 6th century BC. For more than a
year, and prior to purchasing the statue, the Getty subjected the
statue to numerous scientific analyses to establish its authenticity.
As soon as it went on display, however, a number of experts on Greek
art, having viewed the statue only briefly, instinctively felt that
there was something wrong with the statue. They couldn’t pinpoint
exactly what was wrong, but they said it just didn’t “look right.” More
than a year of study and scientific analyses had failed to reveal what
the art experts grasped in two seconds: it was a fraud.
What is happening here, explains Gladwell, is rapid cognition,
which takes place in our adaptive unconscious. This is not the dark,
seedy subconscious of Freud, replete with Oedipal complexes. The
adaptive unconscious is the part of our brain that can make
instantaneous decisions—like a giant computer instantly sorting through
all the data and coming up with a conclusion.
Snap judgments in dating
is another intriguing example of rapid cognition. In speed-dating, a
group of men and women engage in short, six-minute conversations during
which they have to decide whether or not they want to go on a date. If
they like someone within 6 minutes, they check off his or her number on
a form; when there is a match (i.e. both individuals indicate on their
forms that they want to date), then they receive the e-mail address of
that individual. The speed-daters make instant decisions about whether
or not they like someone based on things such as: she had a tongue piercing, or he gave me a red rose, or he had a southern accent.
too superficial, you say? But this sort of “thin-slicing”
(decision-making based on a thin slice of information) happens all the
time. Usually, people call this their “gut reaction” or “gut feeling.”
people have a singular mistrust for their “gut instincts” or feelings.
But feelings are morally neutral. When they are governed by what is
reasonable and good, our feelings are also good. If our feelings
contribute to an evil action, then they become evil. The way we
willfully behave, based on our feelings, can be sinful. If,
for example, if I become angry with someone and nurture hateful
feelings toward him or even wish to harm him, then I commit a sin.
Feelings are important. The Catechism of the Catholic Church
tells us that “Feelings or passions are emotions …that incline us to
act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or
When we spring out the way of a swerving car, we are reacting
appropriately to fear. When we read about social injustice, we are
appropriately angry. When we love, we are drawn to what, or whom, we
love. “Moral perfection consists in man’s being moved to the good not
by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite, as in the words
of the psalm, ‘My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.’”
good Catholics fear strong feelings. An article went around Catholic
Match advising young women to “never trust your heart” in matters of
romance. But why should we never trust it? Our emotions are a gift from
God to help us discern what is good (or evil). It would be absurd to
say to our fiancée, “I rationally approached this relationship and
determined that you meet all the criteria for an excellent spouse. I
don’t actually have any feelings for you, but I think you would make a good wife.”
Very logical, Mr. Spock. But what kind of a marriage would that be?
have feelings and emotions, because we are physical beings. Angels do
not have feelings, because they are purely spiritual beings. Christ,
the Word become flesh, had feelings: he became quite angry with the
Pharisees (“Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their
hardness of heart…” Mark 3:5) and with the money changers outside the
temple. Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and as he approached Jerusalem
prior to the crucifixion, “he saw the city and wept over it” (Luke
19:41). In the Garden of Gesthemane the night before his death, he was
in agony (“sorrowful even to death” Mt 26:38). Jesus experienced the
utmost desolation and abandonment on the Cross. “My God, my God, why
have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
becoming a mature Christian, is integrating in a healthy way our reason
and our emotions, acknowledging our feelings while not letting them run
wild. With the help of grace, we can allow ourselves to feel deeply,
yet not be completely driven by our passions. We also have to let other
people acknowledge their feelings. Our feelings are our own. Nobody makes me feel sad or happy.
person has to have a healthy emotional life, for without it he is
defenseless against the powers of evil,” writes Father Emmerich Vogt,
O.P., Friar Provincial of the Western Dominican Province and founder of
the Twelve Step Review.
friend of mine, who recently broke off a relationship with a young man
whom she had been seeing casually, told me that she felt “terrible” and
“uncharitable.” She knew that this relationship was not going to work
in the long run, because they had very different values, and because
she was beginning to feel uncomfortable with him. He was pressuring
her, and she was feeling manipulated. She then consulted a priest who
agreed that it would be more prudent to break it off. Though she tried
to be respectful when she told the young man that they could no longer
go out, he was hurt and angry. He blamed her. He accused her of being
afraid to fall in love. My friend was miserable. “Am I being mean? Are
my bad feelings a sign that I should get back together with him?”
friend had two “gut feelings” that were at odds. The first was her
feeling that something was not right with the relationship with her
male friend. The second was her feeling of anxiety after she had broken
up. She felt that perhaps she had done something wrong because he was
so hurt after she broke off the relationship. She wondered whether she
was being mean.
Which feeling was right?
reminded her that she had spoken to him respectfully and had sought
wise counsel from a priest, to see whether her first instinct was
credible. She rightly recognized that a trusted spiritual advisor would
be more objective than her girlfriends. She had prayed about her
decision and then had spoken with him in person, presented their
differing values without attacking his character in any way. Finally,
she promised to keep the young man in her prayers. So long as she had
remained charitable, she did not make him feel angry. She had to let him take responsibility for his own anger and resentment.
feeling of anguish in this case was actually a cross that she had to
take up; doing the right thing can be difficult emotionally. But our
sensitivity toward other people’s feelings does not mean we should
simply keep people stringing along, out of a fear of hurt feelings. Our
feelings can lead us astray, also. When my friend was distraught,
fearing that she was responsible for someone else’s feelings, she had
to stop and think: Is this valid?
charitable is not the same as being “nice.” Being nice means never
saying anything that might cause anyone to feel hurt or disappointed.
But this is often not possible, and sometimes not even charitable.
Charity seeks the true good of a person’s soul. To string the young man
along indefinitely may not have caused hurt feelings in the short run,
but in the long run, it would not have been charitable, either.
God has created us to be capable of experiencing strong feelings–so we can use them for good purpose. Through our emotions we intuit the good and suspect evil.
They are our God-given, built- in radar. Growing in wisdom and in
virtue means knowing when one’s feelings are leading one toward what is
good for our soul, and making a prudent decision to follow what is
“The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light. But if
your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness” (Mt 7:22).
I make a snap judgment that a young black male with long hair is
probably a drug dealer, this may be a case of bad rapid cognition,
possibly due to unconscious racism, which the author of Blink
discovered when he grew his hair long. This would have been
incorrect—and morally wrong if I had acted upon that snap judgment.
cognition is like following your conscience—if your conscience is well
formed, you can trust it; but if you have a deformed or doubtful
conscience, it is best not to follow it! A police officer sees a weapon
being drawn on him, yet makes a split second decision to hold his fire
until he can determine whether the assailant, who looks to be only
fourteen years old, is truly dangerous or merely frightened. With the
thinnest slice of information, he decides not to shoot, and the kid
drops the gun at his feet. This was an instance of good rapid cognition based on years of experience and good judgment.
moment—every blink—is composed of a series of discrete moving parts,
and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention,
for reform, and for correction,” writes Gladwell.
point is echoed by the Catechism, which tells us that we must always
seriously seek what is right and good, and try to discern God’s will in
our lives. To this end, we must prudently interpret the data of experience, seek wise advice, and pray for the help of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit works in us, when we are in the state of grace, by
“mobilizing the whole being, with all its sorrows, fears and sadness” –as well as its desire, love and joy—toward the ultimate good, the source of all goodness, God himself.