Every day, often without even realizing it, people “blink”that is, make quick decisions, snap judgments, or follow their intuition. Indeed, it would be impossible to drive a car, cross a street, or engage in myriad other daily activities without accessing such rapid and usually unconscious thought processes. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking examines and celebrates this seemingly mundane mode of cognition.
Oddly, as Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point (2000), points out, despite the ubiquity of these moments of “rapid cognition,” individuals are suspicious of them for several reasons. For one thing, Gladwell rightly states that people assume that “the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.” For another thing, individuals do not know how they arrive at these quick decisions, which just seem to come, almost unbidden. They are fleeting and evanescent. In sum, “we really only trust conscious decision making.”
In his introduction, Gladwell sets out three purposes of this book. The first is to demonstrate that these quick, unconscious decisions are good, valid, and, in some cases, superior in quality to decisions reached by more methodical deliberation. The second purpose is to acknowledge the reverse proposition. Sometimes these quick decisions turn out to be bad or erroneous. Gladwell believes that when the latter outcome occurs, consistent, specific reasons are operating. By identifying such reasons, people can, in turn, learn from the mistakes. This process of analysis and education about the patterns of failures in rapid cognition leads to the author’s third purpose, which is to show that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.” The body of this intriguing and fascinating book elucidates each of these three key points.
To illustrate his first point about the value of quick decisions and following intuition, Gladwell introduces several pertinent anecdotes and examples. He begins the book with the well-known case of an ancient Greek statue known as a kouros which the J. Paul Getty Museum seriously considered buying to add to its prestigious art collection. Experts in a number of fields studied the statue from many scientific standpoints and found the piece to be authentic. Several respected art historians, however, reached the opposite conclusion. At first glance, each one of these scholars “knew” that the statue was a forgery, as it turned out in fact to be.
On another subject, the author discusses the work of a psychologist, John Gottman, who has spent years studying the interaction of couples in his “love lab.” His extensive research shows that if a person knows what to look for, it is possible to predict the success or failure of a relationship based on just minutes of observing the couple. This technique is called “thin-slicing,” which Gladwell defines as “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns and situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.”
In the second chapter, titled “The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions,” Gladwell discusses the unconscious nature of the process. He uses examples of people such as Vic Braden, a tennis professional and coach who, as a tennis player is about to serve, can determine whether that player will double-fault. However hard Braden tries, he cannot explain how he reaches this rapid conclusion. Gladwell speaks of this situation as the locked door, and he asserts that an advantage exists to leaving this rapid cognition process behind that door. The effectiveness of these quick judgments seems to depend on not subjecting them to analysis.
However, just as the reader is primed to accept the value of rapid cognition and thin-slicing as well as its unconscious and unfathomable nature, Gladwell turns the tables by pointing to occasions when this kind of quick decision making fails and can produce serious or even disastrous results. Some failures of this kind stem from the interference or layering of stereotypes and prejudices that can cloud judgment. Racial and gender prejudices are good examples of how unconscious attitudes, those “immediate, automatic associations,” can interfere with and hijack conscious, chosen beliefs. So, even if individuals choose to...
(The entire section is 1789 words.)