Popular Culture

Popular Culture and Rapid Cognition

Decisions based on emotion aren’t decisions at all.

They’re instincts. Which can be of value.

Hie rational and the irrational complement each other.

Individually they’re far less powerful.

—House of Cards (2012)


Despite the importance of rapid cognition for professional and academic practice, it doesn’t have room in the higher education curriculum, which places a disproportionate emphasis on critical thinking and other related thought processes. Rapid cognition is the fast processing of vast amounts of information, which results in an immediate conclusion. Rapid cognition processes can be educated and can be learned deeply. Popular culture stories offer a unique opportunity to teach students how to master rapid cognition effectively.


There is a strong emphasis on critical thinking and other analytical thought processes in law schools and criminal justice programs. At the same time, there is a clear devalue of other ways of thinking, particularly rapid cognition. Rapid cognition consists of fast processing of vast amounts of information, which results in a speedy conclusion. Rapid cognition is associated with instinctive thinking; and it is responsible for most of the decisions we take in our personal, social, and professional lives.

Like other thought processes, rapid cognition processes can also be educated. They can be learned deeply. Popular culture plays a very significant role in helping students learn to improve the effectiveness of their rapid cognition processes and decisions. Popular culture stories offer multitude of examples of individuals using rapid cognition models, including literally thousands of situations involving lawyers and criminal justice professionals. They also give us the opportunity to see the results of decisions taken intuitively. This pennits learners to reflect about rapid cognition and to fine tune their strategies taking into consideration what works and what does not. In turn, all this helps enrich the deep-learning process by providing students with a wide array of diverse intellectual skills, competences, and processes, which students can fully deploy in their future legal and criminal justice professions.

I will begin this chapter with an analysis of the concept of rapid cognition. Then, I will briefly discuss the emphasis on critical thinking skills in law schools and criminal justice programs. I will, then, examine how we can educate our students’ use of rapid cognition strategies and the role that popular culture plays in rapid cognition.


In Columbo (1968-2003), after a very brief encounter with individuals who are both close and unrelated to the victim, Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk) instantly knows who committed the murder. He has an uncanny sense to identify the murderer through casual, unrelated, and even naive questions. For example, in a Trace of Murder (S13 E2, 1997), directed by Vincent McEveety, after a quick glance at the victim’s body, Columbo starts questioning LAPD forensic psychologist Patrick Kinsley (David Rasche) who is in the murder scene to investigate the homicide. Something tells Columbo that Kinsley is the murderer. He asks Kinley to join him in the investigation. He visits Kinsley several times. He asks him to interact with the victim's family and lawyers. Columbo wants to spend time with him because he senses that Kinsley killed the victim. In Columbo's episode Columbo Goes to College (1990) directed by E. W. Swackhamer, lieutenant Columbo is invited to give a lecture in a criminology class at a local college. When a student asks him what the most important strategy to solve a crime is, he answers that he follows his nose. By smelling the crime scene, by scenting the fear of a suspect, by smelling the victim, lieutenant Columbo instantly finds out who committed the crime and how.

Most of the cognitive processes we engage in consist of quick mental reactions and almost instinctive thinking (Kahneman, 2011). We take the majority of important decisions in our everyday and professional lives rapidly without embarking on what is usually referred to as critical thinking skills or analytical reasoning. Critical thinking is a conscious and carefully reasoned logical process of reaching a conclusion by carefully examining the evidence, claims, and arguments used to reach that conclusion. In most instances of our personal and professional lives, we quickly reach a conclusion in the first few seconds without ever engaging in this long process. In everyday language, we refer to this as intuition, first impression, first sight, or gut feeling. This is, in fact, a very complex process that takes place in the adaptive unconscious of our brains (Gladwell, 2007). This cognitive strategy—also known in the literature as System 1 thinking (Kahneman, 2011; Gladwell, 2007)—originates in the survival instinct developed by our ancestors, long before our species evolved into the human race. This strategy is closely connected to the fight-or-flee response that takes place in our brains when we perceive an attack or a threat. In those situations, we need to react quickly. We need to assess the situation very fast, make a decision, and act accordingly. In most cases in our daily lives, there is no harm or threat of harm. But our brain scans and processes a vast amount of information and makes very quick decisions based on the processed information. We use rapid cognition str ategies to take most of our decisions in life, including professional decisions in the legal and criminal justice fields. These decisions range from asking someone out on a date to plaiming the best strategy to defend a client in a high-profile criminal case. For example, contrary to what may generally be assumed, hiring panels select a candidate during the first few minutes—or even seconds—of a job interview. Similarly, students evaluate their professors during the first minutes of the very first class. Empirical research shows that these evaluations seldom change after months or years as from the first encounter. Also, judges and jurors make decisions on whether an accused is guilty of a crime or a defendant is liable for damages after a few minutes of meeting the accused or the defendant.

In most of these cases, we do not realize that we have made the decision in minutes or even seconds. We are not generally aware of this process. This is because “our actions frequently precede our understanding of why we acted in particular ways. In other words, we use outcomes to make sense—at a conscious level—of what we have just done—at a subconscious level. We react first and then we think about our actions” (Hogarth, 2003). For example, in Makers: Lisa Leslie (2014), the first female basketball player to ever made a slam dunk, she tells the audience that she first “dunked it before she could realize that she had done so.” Whereas Leslie is quite articulate, she is unable to explain how she dunked it.

Research studies show that when asked to explain our decisions, reactions, and thoughts we may come up with elaborate explanations which have little to do with the thought processes that actually took place in our brains. Gladwell (2011) recounts some research experiments with top athletes who were asked to explain their moves and plays. Their explanations simply did not match what they actually did. In Columbo ’s A Trace of Murder (1997), when a bartender asks Columbo how he solved the case, Columbo cannot explain why he has targeted Patrick Kinsley from the very beginning of the investigation. Columbo comes up with an elaborate explanation that focuses on a later incident. He does not seem to be able to articulate easily what he has felt veiy clearly from the moment he first laid eyes on the victim’s body that Patrick Knisley has killed the victim.

In some instances, there is even a radical discrepancy between what people think they do and what people actually do. Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1974) came up with two models to exp lam the gap between what we do—generally as a result of rapid cognition processes—and what we say we do: the theory-in-use and the espoused theory, respectively. The theory-in-use is the theory actually employed, whereas the espoused theory consists of the “beliefs, attitudes, and values” that people think guide their behaviors (Argyris, 1993). Argyris and Schön (1974) found that in most cases “there are often fundamental, systematic mismatches between individual’s espoused and in-use designs” (Argyris, 1993).

Another phenomenon associated with rapid cognition is that we use critical thinking and other similarly elaborate and long thought processes (System 2 thinking) to justify and rationalize ideas and decisions that were acmally made by our rapid cognition system (Kahneman, 2011). We reach a decision intuitively and then we justify it by coming up with a complex explanation that validates the decision generated in the rapid cognition system. For example, when reading a student’s essay, we may instantly decide that the essay deserves a B. Then, we will justify our instant decision with our analysis of why the essay is better than an essay that got a C but not as good as an essay that received an A. We may find some mistakes that will support the fact that the essay will not get an A: and we will find some positive aspects in the essay that will endorse our decision not to give the essay a C. In the legal field, the same phenomenon takes place not only with laypeople but also with professionals. Both judges and jurors base their decisions on whether an accused is guilty of a crime or a defendant is liable for damages instantly after encountering the accused or the defendant or reading the file. This is, of course, a subconscious decision that is later justified in terms of legal theories or factual schemes. Incidentally, this phenomenon has led legal realists to claim that judicial cases as well as other legal decisions are “elaborate post hoc realizations forjudges to window dress decisions that they have arrived at for personal reasons” (D’Amato, 1984).

Rapid cognition is also responsible for the development of our likes and preferences that range from the actors we like to the cars we prefer. Our preferences and likes also, unconsciously, greatly influence our decisions in areas where we may believe that we reach decisions rationally and analytically such as professional decisions in our careers. Finally, the rapid cognition system is also responsible for the development of our “long-term memory by recording many features of our interactions with the world” (Hogarth, 2003).

Rapid cognition is not a simple thought process. It activates a multitude of neuronal connections. It involves the perception of dozens of stimuli and information, which are analyzed and processed very fast. It also implies acting out and reacting to the conclusions achieved rapidly.

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