03/05/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Two Newborns Reveal Our Ancient Power of Judgment

Two stories stunned our weekend reading and generated acres of press attention. Although they were completely unrelated thematically, to me they are completely related conceptually.
Because they have a lot to say about the way we make judgments, take risks in real time, and approach decision-making under stress.

The first story showed up in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times on Sunday, with the tabloidly come-up headline "We Found Our Son in the Subway." In case you're one of the only remaining people on the planet who hasn't been forwarded the story, or come upon it on Facebook or Twitter, it is a remarkable saga. A young man, broke, living with his boyfriend, finds a baby on the subway. He deposits the baby at Family Court, and a few months later, when he shows up at the hearing, the judge poses an unusual question:

Suddenly, the judge asked, "Would you be interested in adopting this baby?" The question stunned everyone in the courtroom, everyone except for Danny, who answered, simply, "Yes."

"But I know it's not that easy," he said.

"Well, it can be," assured the judge before barking out orders to commence with making him and, by extension, me, parents-to-be.

There it was, a momentary decision on the surface, but a subterranean neurological process of enormous speed and complexity. It was a sudden storm of input that blended her personal instincts, her experience, and the genetic inheritance we all have from thousands of years of evolutionary wiring that tells us who to trust and believe in.

The author, Peter Mercurio -- whose then-boyfriend, now-husband -- found the baby, goes on to describe the moment when the adoption became official.

"At the final hearing, after she had signed the official adoption order, I raised my hand. "Your honor, we've been wondering why you asked Danny if he was interested in adopting?"

"I had a hunch," she just said. "Was I wrong?" And with that she rose from her chair, congratulated us, and exited the courtroom."

The second story about an infant and the incalculable rewards of a split-second decision took place far from the New York City subway, in rural Mississippi.

A baby, who had no prenatal care, was born to a mother whose blood test revealed she might be infected with H.I.V. The baby was immediately transferred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center. There, she was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Hannah B. Gay, who exercised the same split-second brilliance as the Family Court judge.

Not even waiting for the confirmatory blood tests, Dr. Gay blasted the baby with a three-drug cocktail designed to treat the infection aggressively. Normally, notes the Times, "a newborn win an infected mother would be given one or two drugs as a prophylactic measure."

As a result of Dr. Gay's stunning intervention -- whose novelty might very well have violated some hospital regulations, which is another story -- headlines around the world screamed the news "Baby Cured of AIDS."

A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called "Blink"
about rapid cognition and its powers. He described his fascination with "the smallest components of our everyday lives... instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress."

I'm astounded by the gift of our apparatus of judgment -- recognizing, of course, that as my friend Dan Ariely warns us, we are often predictably irrational. Indeed, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning father of behavioral psychology, argues in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that we have two brain systems, and that we put too much confidence in System One, which is quick, emotional and intuitive. System Two, by contrast, is ruled by logic and deliberation.

But how would you "systematize" the adoption decision and the treatment decision we read about this weekend? Surely they had all the aspects of System One decisions. There were stunningly, even absurdly immediate. But were they not also logical and deliberate, though compressed? Indeed, perhaps we are at our highest moments of functioning when we rise to the level of impulsive genius -- and fall forward into the right thing.

We all have a little, or more than a little of the judge and the pediatrician deep inside us. But we've been trained to keep a lid on our intuition, and to even be embarrassed to refer to it as the basis for a decision. It makes us seem naïve, or lacking in rigor, or undisciplined; the Chris Christie of conclusions.

Instead, we make sure we've spent the required hours digging into the "research" in order to find the essentials of a smart decision, or studiously examine the "data points," or we spend hours writing memos that demonstrate we've "covered all the bases." Our deference to the putative advantages of System Two leaves us with plenty of excuses for our thoughtfully bad decisions.

System One gets a bad rap these days. It's blamed for bad habits that include everything from the fact that we're too fat, or that we don't save enough, or that we take on mortgages we can't afford. But there's a happy 12-year-old boy adopted boy in New York, and a healthy 2½-year-old girl in Mississippi, who are the proud children of our Systems One.