In the blink of an eye

I recently read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink, which in my opinion is a definite must-read.

Blink is all about the power of thinking without thinking. It’s about those instinctive decisions and snap judgments you make in the first few seconds of a situation—the decisions you make in the “blink of an eye”. Gladwell uses numerous true stories to illustrate the power of snap judgments.

Now, I must begin by saying that I rarely read the Afterword in books, but for some reason I decided to read this one. And I’m glad I did because it really summed up the lessons in the book.

At one point, Gladwell says he is often asked when people should trust their instincts and when they should consciously think things through. This was his answer:

On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated—when we have to juggle many different variables—then our unconscious thought processes may be superior.

This answer really got me thinking. It is a tough lesson to learn, as he notes that this goes against our traditional wisdom in that most people tend to trust their snap judgments on immediate trivial questions rather than on complicated ones. Nevertheless, I think this lesson is important for all of us.

Going into public relations, there will be times when we will need to make decisions quickly. In some cases, perhaps it will be important to trust our snap judgments. I’m sure we’ve all experienced situations in which we went against our instincts and later regretted it. However, I find it difficult to trust such judgments when my career is on the line. I always tend to feel better knowing that I have facts and research to back up my decision.

But there may be situations in which research may not be enough. If a company is going through a crisis and you need to work to fix it, you will have to make quick decisions about how to handle it. Perhaps instincts will play a role in answering such questions as: Should we address the issue now? Should we wait until we have more information? Should we apologize? Sometimes our conscious thoughts may be leading us in one direction while our instincts are telling us to do something else and we will need to decide which to trust in those moments.

The second important lesson that Gladwell emphasizes is the need to act and solve problems when we are faced with them. The particular story he references is of the classical music industry which, in the past, was very prejudiced against women. It was believed that women could not play the more “masculine” instruments, like the trombone, simply because they did not have the lung power that men had. However, when this prejudice became apparent, they made changes to the audition process and decided to have applicants audition behind a screen. This way, the committee would be able to focus solely on their instincts about the musician from simply listening to them play and without being influenced by their gender. Gladwell says that he wants to encourage this kind of practical problem solving among his readers.

I found this lesson to be of great relevance to us budding PR practitioners because I view public relations as a field in which problem solving skills are essential, not just in dealing with crisis situations but in dealing with everyday tasks. So much of the job involves some form of problem solving, whether it’s figuring out how to get our organization or client positive media coverage or deciding on strategies and tactics to help reach communications goals. Sometimes the solutions may involve very creative ideas, whereas other times it may be something simple—like having musicians audition behind a screen. It’s also important for us to realize when mistakes are made. In the end, I think we will be more respected in our careers when we acknowledge mistakes, apologize and fix them.

To my fellow classmates, how do you feel about trusting rapid cognition rather than conscious thinking? In your opinion, which kind of thinking is going to be more important in solving public relations problems?

 Oh and seriously, if you haven’t read Blink yet, what are you waiting for?  🙂

March 13, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. This is a tough question. If you’ve read my blog you know I’m a very organized, methodical person so you would probably think that I am often a very conscious thinker. I try to be, but I am also extremely emotional and tend to react quickly to situations. I can’t help it, my emotions get the best of me.

    Besides the fact that that is something I need to work on before beginng work, I think it really depends on the situation. It is usually better to think about things for awhile to weigh all the possible options before making a decision.

    However, sometimes, especially in a crisis, we are not always given this luxury. But this is a time when I think that rapid cognition is good because your gut instinct and emotions will be what you notice first. This can be helpful in terms of putting yourself in your audience’s shoes because they are likely feeling the same way. What would you want to know if you were them? Then hopefully you can act accordingly.

    I think this is part of the reason why I like public relations, you don’t have to be as emotionally detached as other business people, but you still have to use your analytical brain to solve problems and create ideas. Lucky us!

    Comment by Shauna Turpie | March 14, 2008

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