Published: July 6, 2012
Beyond the Blink

The blink response to this case is only the latest example of a troubling increase in the speed of our reactions.

Fortunately, there is an antidote: the conscious pause.

For example, countless studies have shown that physicians’ immediate, unconscious reactions to racial minorities lead them to undertreat black patients. In one study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in 2007, researchers asked several hundred doctors about a hypothetical 50-year-old male patient who showed up with chest pain. The researchers gave the doctors a photograph of the man, randomly varying his race. Half saw him as white; half saw him as black.

Snap decisions can be important defense mechanisms; if we are judging whether someone is dangerous, our brains and bodies are hard-wired to react very quickly, within milliseconds. But we need more time to assess other factors. To accurately tell whether someone is sociable, studies show, we need at least a minute, preferably five.

John Gottman, the marriage guru made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink,” explains that we quickly “thin slice” information reliably only after we ground such snap reactions in “thick sliced” long-term study.

Our ability to mute our hard-wired reactions by pausing is what differentiates us from animals: primates and dogs can think about the future only intermittently or for a few minutes. But historically we have spent about 12 percent of our days contemplating the longer term.