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Why you should trust your feelings

V V | August 09, 2005

Before you read Malcolm Gladwell's American bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking consider this cricketing problem.

When Shoaib Akhtar, the Pakistani fast bowler, hurls the ball at 90 miles an hour, it gives the batsman 0.6 second to react to it. The arithmetic works out as follows. The pitch is 22 yards long. But the distance between the bowling crease and the batting crease is 20 yards. So the ball travels 20 yards from leaving the bowler's hands and reaching the bat.

image 1 mile = 1,760 yards

90 miles = 90 X 1,760 = 158,400 yards

That is, a ball travelling at 90 mph covers the distance of 158,400 yards in an hour.

So, how long does it take to cover 20 yards?

If 158,400 yards can be done in 60 minutes, 20 yards is covered in .45 second.

Assuming the ball hits the ground once before it reaches the batsman (that is, it is not a full toss and Shoaib does not bowl full tosses), it loses a bit of speed after hitting the ground. So let's round it off at 0.6 second.

An experienced batsman reacts almost instinctively on how to play the ball. 

This is the point that Gladwell makes in Blink: there are many moments when we 'know' something without knowing why and how, and this ability is one of the most powerful gifts we possess.

By blocking out what is irrelevant and focusing on narrow slices of experience, we can read a seemingly complex situation in the blink of an eye -- and discover a radically new way of understanding the world. To put this theory on its head, we learn and listen through our eyes!

Gladwell's basic concern is with human relationships that are, in many ways, the chief source of angst. How does one figure out whether an individual you are dealing with can be trusted with a long-term relationship?

No amount of learning or experience can teach you to take the right decision; what matters is a hunch or a feeling which could be backed up with empirical research to check out whether you were on the 'right track'.

Gladwell says all of us have 'an adaptive unconscious… which is a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need to keep functioning as human beings… It is a kind of decision-making apparatus that is capable of making quick judgements based on very little information.'

To back up his thesis that 'decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately,' Gladwell quotes the psychologist Timothy Wilson's 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 and efficient manner.'

But Gladwell warns that 'the adaptive unconscious is not to be confused with Freud's Unconscious, which was a dark and murky place filled with desires and memories and fantasies that were too disturbing for us to think consciously.'

In the prognosis of a marital relationship, it was just observations on how the couple reacted to each other over minor everyday matters and the tone of their voice that revealed whether they had an emotional bond that would last out over the years when 'all was said and done'. And if women fall for the tall, dark and handsome men, it is because they have a feeling they would be 'secure' with them.

Gladwell says 'we toggle back and forth between our conscious and unconscious modes of thinking, depending on the situation'. An invitation to a dinner is a conscious decision; a spontaneous decision is unconscious. This is what the 17th century French philosopher Pascal said about 'two extravagances: to exclude Reason, to admit only Reason.'
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