Rapid Cognition: First Impressions and Running With Our Ideas

About the Book

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell discusses how we process information unconsciously. He explains the concept of “thin-slicing”, which Gladwell describes as “rapid cognition”, or “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” (Gladwell, p.23).  It is important to note that this process is entirely unconscious and something we all experience, such as making snap judgments of people when we first meet, quickly assessing a situation at work or on the street, and even dating.

Our abilities to thin-slice effectively and accurately are built around repeated practice of activities so that at any given moment, we are already preconditioned to recognize- in a blink- how to analyze and respond to a situation. The lesson Gladwell wants readers to take away from Blink is that we be more mindful of our rapid cognition and recognize that there are many “subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious” (Gladwell, p. 152).

How Can Librarians Use This Information?

One of the core values of librarianship is to create an environment in which all are welcome and to provide a safe space in which library users can learn, read, watch, work, and create. While this is an important aspect of librarianship, many people make snap judgments automatically, even if they mean well- including librarians and other library staff.

Blink argues that since our first impressions of people are created by “our experiences and our environment… we can change our first impressions-we can alter the way we thin-slice- by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.” (Gladwell, p. 97). Gladwell explains that in order to change the way you thin-slice when you meet new people, you must interact more often with those people you wish to view differently. This allows you to become comfortable with them, be primed to recognize their positive attributes, and be familiar with their culture. This is a situation in which a personal declaration to treat everyone equally is not enough-it requires a lifestyle change and a lot of practice. Library staff can learn to be more open and welcoming simply by helping library patrons and getting to know a little more about them.

“How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.” (Gladwell, p. 114).  Gladwell explains that thin-slicing is more effective than a long, drawn out process of debating options. This falls in line with the article “Think Like a Startup” as well as The Heart of Librarianship. Early in the first chapter of The Heart of Librarianship, Stephens states: “The best librarians make good, rapid decisions based on evidence, experience, and a view of the big picture.” (Stephens, p.13). Brian Mathews states something similar, by emphasizing the importance of running with ideas that are “good enough” instead of honing an idea to perfection before trying to enact it. In the rapidly changing landscape of libraries, we must quickly assess the current and possible future trends and put our ideas into action immediately instead of debating whether it will be successful and thus missing our chance entirely. Some ideas will inevitably fail, but we must learn from our successes and figure out what does and doesn’t work. “Realizing when you may need to pivot your idea in a new direction is critical toward cultivating innovation.” (Mathews, p.5). Equally importantly, we must learn to adapt and change our ideas as we go along.

The rapidly shifting world of technology requires libraries to keep up and provide the latest in technology, programming and access to spaces in which patrons can create and explore new skills.


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. Little, Brown And Co.

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup.

Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive and purposeful change. ALA Editions.

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