Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rapid Cognition. Think Fast!

We have been programmed to believe that, the more information that we have, the better decisions we make.

It didn’t help General Joe Hooker against General Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in the Civil War. Hooker had studied General Robert E. Lee extensively, had an army of spies in the Confederacy feeding him information, had hot air balloons in the sky giving him aerial information and had twice as many cannons and men, but lost. Lee won, because Hooker “read” him wrong.

We research, analyze and study the subject matter to the smallest micron until we convince ourselves that we can make the best case argument and/or decisions.

And I was of that mind until I read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book came as a suggestion from my good friend, Mick Mayers of Firehouse Zen fame and was in response to a blog that I wrote titled “Thought-Less” ( In the blog, I wrote about how I felt that Society’s attention span and appetite for information was getting shorter.

“Blink” is a fascinating book, with regards to how we process information in our minds. It is a little “heavy” and somewhat clinical, but this book literally gave me an “AH-HAH!” moment.

The book is about rapid cognition, which is the ability to make snap judgments in the “blink of an eye”. It is about what we know in the first two seconds. It is about reading faces. It is about making decisions from our “unconscious”. It is about creating white space.

I was immediately drawn to this phenomenon and how it might apply to decision-making in the fire service.

Here is an excerpt from the book: Gary Klein, the decision-making expert, once did an interview with a fire department commander in Cleveland as part of a project to get professionals to talk about times when they had to make tough, split-second decisions. The story the fireman told was about a seemingly routine call he had taken years before, when he was a lieutenant. The fire was in the back of a one-story house in a residential neighborhood, in the kitchen. The lieutenant and his men broke down the front door, laid down their hose, and then, as firemen say, “charged the line,” dousing the flames in the kitchen with water. Something should have happened at that point: the fire should have abated. But it didn’t. So the men sprayed again. Still, it didn’t seem to make much difference. The fire men retreated back through the archway into the living room, and there, suddenly, the lieutenant thought to himself, ‘there’s something wrong’. He turned to his men. ‘Let’s get out, NOW!’ he said, and moments after they did, the floor on which they had been standing collapsed. The fire, it turned out, had been in the basement.

‘He didn’t know why he had ordered everyone out’, Klein remembers. ‘He believed it was ESP. He was serious. He thought he had ESP, and he felt that because of that ESP, he’d been protected throughout his career’.

Klein is a decision researcher with a Ph.D., a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, and he wasn’t about to accept that as an answer. Instead, for the next two hours, again and again he led the firefighter back over the events of that day in an attempt to document precisely what the lieutenant did and didn’t know. ‘The first thing was that the fire didn’t behave the way it was supposed to’, Klein says. Kitchen fires should respond to water. This one didn’t. ‘Then they moved back into the living room’, Klein went on. ‘He told me that he always keeps his earflaps up because he wants to get a sense of how hot the fire is, and he was surprised at how hot this one was. A kitchen fire shouldn’t have been that hot’. I asked him, ‘What else?’ Often a sign of expertise is noticing what doesn’t happen, and the other thing that surprised him was that the fire wasn’t ‘noisy’. It was quiet, and that didn’t make sense given how much heat there was’.

In retrospect all those anomalies make perfect sense. The fire didn’t respond to being sprayed in the kitchen because it wasn’t centered in the kitchen. It was quiet because it was muffled by the floor. The living room was hot because the fire was underneath the living room, and heat rises. At the time, though, the lieutenant made none of those connections consciously. All of his thinking was going on behind the locked door of his unconscious. This is a beautiful example of thin-slicing in action. The fireman’s internal computer effortlessly and instantly found a pattern in the chaos. But surely the most striking fact about that day is how close it all came to disaster. Had the lieutenant stopped and discussed the situation with his men, had he said to them, ‘let’s talk this over and try to figure out what’s going on’; had he done, in other words, what we often think leaders are supposed to do to solve difficult problems, he might have destroyed his ability to jump to the insight that saved their lives.
And what of this “beautiful” example of “thin-slicing”?

According to Gladwell, thin-slicing is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviors based upon very narrow slices of experience”.

There are several examples of thin-slicing and rapid cognition in the book.

From art experts to police, there are many who use it; both consciously and unconsciously.

The book even suggests that we suffer a form of autism when changes occur to us that are brought on by the “heat of the moment”. That causes us to miss the information that is in front of us.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book and the one that presents the most potential in our business is the theory of “mind-reading”.

A psychologist by the name of Silvan Tompkins believed that faces held valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations. By learning the muscles in the face and the nerve centers in the brain that controlled them, Tompkins could tell with extraordinary accuracy the emotion of a person. They could not “hide their feelings” from him.

His student, Paul Ekman went even further. He taught himself to control his facial expressions that are involuntary in the rest of us.

As an example of his skill he could look at photos of faces and pick out sex offenders through their process that was called Facial Action Coding System (FACS).

Are these skills that can be taught?

According to Gladwell, there are roughly 500 others certified to use (FACS) in their research.

Have you ever found yourself telling another “I don’t know what you’re thinking; I can’t read your mind”?

Have you ever wondered if you were truly getting an honest answer or honest reaction from someone?

Have you ever studied all of the available information, expecting great results and were disappointed with the outcome?

Thin-slicing is a process that resides in the unconscious mind. Gladwell advocates thin-slicing the more complex issues and analyzing information on less complex ones.

Sigmund Freud said, “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”

Can we take this process of rapid cognition or “thin-slicing” and effectively apply it to the fire service? I believe that some are already doing it; whether they know it or not.

Can we look at the size up/assessment phase of the operation as “putting a face on our enemy” and then learning to read the face?

I am not talking about reading smoke. If you go back to the beginning of this blog to the firefighting example from the book, it would appear that we need to learn and to know when to thin-slice.

I believe that more should be considered.

I recommend that fire service leaders, as well as forward-thinking rank and file read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Then, post your thoughts here, please.


This article is protected by federal copyright laws under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella. The article is written by Art Goodrich, also known as ChiefReason and cannot be reproduced in any form without the expressed, written permission of the author. Please visit: and my blog at
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