Mythbusting: No, dear Malcolm Gladwell, you don’t better make complex decisions in the blink of an eye

I’ve been discussing one of the claims of Malcolm Gladwell on this blog a while ago, the 10000 hours rule, via @StuartJRitchie I found another popular theory from a Gladwell book that has been debunked. In 2005 Malcolm Gladwell published a book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The key message: complex decisions are often more accurate when made quickly, unconsciously, in the blink of an eye.

This popular review of studies already showed in 2009 that you’ll find it is a bit more complicated than that (HT Ben Goldacre for this phrase).

This new Dutch study by Nieuwenstein et al. well, is a meta-study looking at and comparing all the available evidence and combined this with a large-scale replication study. What they found is much in line with this review-study made last year.

Guess what? It’s better to think before you judge than follow your unconscious.

Abstract of the study (free download):

Are difficult decisions best made after a momentary diversion of thought?  Previous research addressing this important question has yielded dozens of experiments  in which participants were asked to choose the best of several options (e.g., cars or apartments) either after conscious deliberation, or after a momentary diversion of  thought induced by performing an unrelated task. The results of these studies were mixed as some found that participants who had first performed the unrelated task were more likely to choose the best option, whereas others found no evidence for this socalled unconscious thought advantage (UTA). The current study examined two accounts  of this inconsistency in previous findings. According to the reliability account, the UTA  does not exist and previous reports of this effect concern nothing but spurious effects obtained with an unreliable paradigm. In contrast, the moderator account proposes that the UTA is a real effect which only occurs when certain conditions are met in the choice task. To test these accounts, we conducted a meta-analysis and a large-scale replication study (N = 399) that met the conditions deemed optimal for replicating the UTA. Consistent with the reliability account, the large-scale replication study yielded no
evidence for the UTA, and the meta-analysis showed that previous reports of the UTA were confined to underpowered studies that used relatively small sample sizes.
Furthermore, the results of the large-scale study also dispelled the recent suggestion that the UTA might be gender-specific. Accordingly, we conclude that there exists no reliable support for the claim that a momentary diversion of thought leads to better
decision making than a period of deliberation.

2 thoughts on “Mythbusting: No, dear Malcolm Gladwell, you don’t better make complex decisions in the blink of an eye

  1. In the main I’d agree – relying on intuition will lead us into unconsciously using heuristics and falling into a range of cognitive traps and biases. But in his book Influence, Robert Cialdini suggests that sometimes the only way out of traps is to consult our ‘heart of hearts’. He suggests the only reliable way of doing this is to see the flash of cognitive dissonance we get before it’s rationalised away. This ‘consultation’ takes place in the blink of an eye.

    As you say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

  2. @David Didau Just discovering the pseudo-sciency writing of Gladwell, I know it’s 7 years later after your comment. So your point is in order to to get out of the cognitive traps caused by intuition, use…intuition?

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