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The Dangers of Quick Thinking

Reviews of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, have almost universally focused on the somewhat less than eye-opening claim that going with a hunch sometimes beats taking more time to think and decide.

Decisions made in a "blink" can be better than decisions made after pondering piles of evidence and sifting through conflicting scenarios. In sports, investing, even dating, sometimes the first instinct is the best answer.

But what most reviewers have missed, perhaps because of the book's upbeat subtitle, is that the most important conclusions in the book actually warn against relying on intuitive decision-making. Read carefully, Blink is more a cautionary tale than a call to arms. And in that way, it's unlike Gladwell's previous bestseller, The Tipping Point, which offered positive insights about how fads are born and trends spread.

Two important lessons for investors leap to mind, though Gladwell himself doesn't discuss finance much beyond a brief anecdote about George Soros. First, be wary of people explaining their success. And second, while intuition is a snap judgment, the basis for such accurate quick decisions often comes from years of experience and hard work.

An anecdote in a chapter called "The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions" provides the first lesson for market players. People with the ability to make intuitive decisions with great accuracy in a particular context -- such as a top-notch bond trader or fighter pilot -- cannot truly explain how they are making those decisions. The subconscious, where intuition lives, is just that -- below the level of conscious thought.

Gladwell provides the example of professional tennis coach Vic Braden, who realized while watching tennis matches on television that he could predict with uncanny accuracy when a player was about to double fault.

"I would lie in bed at night thinking, 'How did I do this?' I don't know," he tells Gladwell. "It drove me crazy."

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