Malcolm Gladwell on Blinking and Thinking

“In the first two seconds of looking – in a single glance – they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months…Blink is a book about those first two seconds.”


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (2005, Back Bay Books)


The English-born Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell (born 1963), who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, is well known for appropriating sociological and psychological research into popular formats. His 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking  (the second of his currently five bestselling works of non-fiction) is a fascinating study of the “adaptive unconscious” – the part of our brain responsible for instantaneous (2- or 3-second) reactions and judgments (not to be be confused with Sigmund Freud’s “unconscious”, which is a murky place of repressed desires and objectionable fantasies). In Blink, Gladwell sets out to perform three principal tasks: (a). he wants to convince the reader that decisions made quickly are as important and valuable as decisions made cautiously and deliberately, (b). since the unconscious is a fallible mental faculty, he wants to tell us when we must trust and when we must me wary of our instincts and (c). he wishes to demonstrate that rapid cognition can be educated and controlled. It is not a gift magically given to a fortunate few. Anybody can cultivate and refine their powers of spontaneous conclusions and first impressions.


Gladwell begins by informing us about “thin-slicing”, that ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience [(i) The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way]. Thin-slicing, he shows, can be useful in ascertaining personality traits and the quality of human relationships. As in you can learn much about a marriage by watching a bickering couple for just a minute or extract a great deal of information about an individual by merely noticing their room. In (ii) The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions, Gladwell introduces us to “priming”, the practice of influencing someone’s behavior with subtle triggers without their awareness. He gives an example of African American students performing poorly in exams after being asked to indicate their race but better without that admission. They felt more confident in their abilities when they thought there was a good chance of their being judged fairly. Gladwell’s point is that you can make anyone perform better by situating them in a ‘smart frame of mind’, by eliminating all negative associations and stereotypes from the environment. The next chapter (iii) The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark and Handsome Men explores the dark side of rapid cognition. Snap decisions could be heavily influenced by physical appearances. Why do we find so many mediocre people so easily promoted to leadership positions even when they do not have the calibre? Chances are because of superficial factors like race or height or gender or status. Next, even unpredictable circumstances can function according to plan, Gladwell asserts in (iv) Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity. He brings stories from the battlefield and improvisational comedy. Over the next two chapters, we find him discussing the complexities of market research/product testing [(v) Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right – and Wrong – Way to Ask People What They Want] and the problems that come with the decoding of facial expressions [(vi) Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading]. He ends by stating that too many of our snap judgments are directly corrupted by baseless assumptions and prejudices (especially related to race and gender) that we do not even know we hold. By studying the science of rapid cognition and reflecting on the way we make decisions, we can help create a much fairer society.


Two aspects. The extensive use of interesting case studies lends the book a fair amount of credibility. The reader is directed to the research projects of many prominent psychologists, among them Mahzarin Banaji (Implicit Association Test), John Gottman (The Love Lab) and Sheena Iyengar (Choice). Next, Gladwell makes the commendable effort of demonstrating the prevalence of rapid cognition in various areas of human activity – art history, law and order, music, food and beverage, politics, recruitment, dating and sales.


The book feels too chock-full of anecdotes and this negatively affects its readability, particularly in the last two or three chapters. You keep losing a sense of the whole and do not know where the argument is going. Also, for me, Gladwell succeeds in the first two tasks of his threefold mission but only partly in the third. Our ability to arrive at spontaneous conclusions can be educated and controlled, but only, I think, in certain areas of human activity – like therapists could be taught to successfully predict the likelihood of divorce by carefully studying short spells of interactions between couples and policemen could be taught to determine the possibility of an attack by reading the body language of a suspect. But is there a foolproof formula in which hiring managers can accurately determine the potential of a prospective applicant for a position by a 4-second CV scan or can a commissioning editor know for sure if a book proposal will make a commercially successful project by a 5-second skimming of a query letter from an aspiring novelist? Umm…I don’t think so. We aren’t all that programmable. Sometimes you just need to give more time and consideration to ideas that are pitched to you to fully realise their value or lack thereof. There are no shortcuts. Implusive approval or impulsive rejection – both could prove to be major losses.


Read this book if you are a professional involved in decision-making. But take it as a first and introductory rather than a final and conclusive word on the subject. I rate it 8/10.

P.S.: A wonderful reading guide for the book is available on Gladwell’s website. Also, if you are interested, you can check out a 2006 reactionary book called Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye by Toronto-based writer Michael R. LeGault.


Featured Image Credit: Pixabay


Preview Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.


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