Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Summary

Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Summary

In Blink, writer Malcolm Gladwell explores the psychology of snap decisions and quick thinking. He illuminates how our subconscious biases affect the way we think and behave. He concludes that we shouldn't always rely on our snap judgments.

  • Gladwell introduces the idea of "thin slicing"—using little slivers of information about a person and using them to form a larger opinion. He concludes that this method is most effective among strangers and breaks down in intimate relationships, such as marriage.

  • Gladwell then examines how subconscious racial and socioeconomic biases affect how we think about other groups of people and what language we use to describe them. One car salesman foregoes these judgments, and this makes him wildly successful.

  • Gladwell then relates the tragic story of Amadou Diallo, who was shot by police in the Bronx who mistakenly believed he was carrying a gun. This demonstrates how relying on snap judgments can have disastrous consequences.


Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is his second work. It follows his bestselling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. First published in 2005, Blink explores the connection between cutting-edge psychological and neurological research and human intuition. Whereas The Tipping Point establishes the effect of other humans and the outside world on people's decisions and social trends, Gladwell uses Blink to demonstrate how someone's inner self or subconscious effects his or her decisions.

Introduction: The Statue That Didn't Look Right

Gladwell's introduction to Blink presents the example of the J. Paul Getty Museum's purchase of a statue that turned out to be a forgery. The Getty was approached by an art dealer in 1983 who claimed to have a sixth century B.C. Greek statue for sale—a kouros. Although officials at the museum were somewhat suspicious initially, they decided to purchase the statue after a 14-month investigation. The investigation included using core samples from the statue to test its age, background checks into the documentation of the statue's former owners, and even tests by sculpture experts in Athens. In 1986, satisfied that the kouros was an original, the Getty put it on display. Unfortunately, once the sculpture went on display, experts began expressing doubts about its authenticity. First an Italian art historian, Federico Zeri, observed that the statue's fingernails "seemed wrong to him." He could not articulate why they looked wrong, but he had a bad feeling about the kouros. After several other art experts experienced similar doubts, the Getty initiated further investigation into the sculpture's origin and discovered that it possibly could be a reproduction. Parts of the sculpture fit into different time periods, and forensic research revealed that a good forgery could pass a core sample test if the statue were soaked in potato mold. The end result is that the statue remains on display, but its placard reads, "About 350 BC, or modern forgery." Throughout the rest of Blink, Gladwell refers back to this introductory example to explain why some of the experts knew upon first glance at the statue that something was wrong.

Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way

Chapter 1 introduces the idea of "thin slicing"—taking minute details about someone or something and using that thin slice to develop a larger opinion of him, her, or it. The chapter focuses mostly on the research of psychologist John Gottman from the University of Washington. Gottman has established the reputation of being able to determine with a 90% accuracy rate whether a marriage will endure. He does so by observing the couple for 15 minute or less. He has trained assistants in his Love Lab to quickly code facial expressions and tones to determine the underlying messages that spouses send to one another. The couples, of course, send their messages of contempt, anger, disgust, defensiveness, or neutrality subconsciously; so Gottman and his assistants do not study the couples' words nearly as much as they do their reactions and gestures. Gottman's research is significant because it establishes the idea that humans do not need to know a great deal about someone else to determine that person's personality. Gladwell offers other examples of effective thin slicing in this chapter, such as strangers rather than friends being able to more accurately identify someone's personality based on a 15-minute look at his or her dorm room.

Chapter 2: The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions

While John Gottman and other established psychologists can logically explain how their research works and how they know what they do about the human mind, Chapter 2 explains why most of us cannot explain how our subconscious mind works. Gladwell notes that many humans are similar to the art experts in the book's introduction: our intuition tells us that something is not quite right or tells us that we can trust someone, but we cannot articulate why we think the way we do. The author offers the example of Vic Braden, one of the world's top tennis coaches, who discovered that he could predict with impressive accuracy when a tennis player was going to double fault (serve two bad serves in a row). Braden would watch matches and think to himself, "She's going to double fault," as the player began her serve. Interestingly enough, Braden was tortured by the fact that he could not identify how he was so accurately predicting the poor serves. He tried thinking about his thinking but was at a loss as to how to explain his hunches to others.

Similarly, Gladwell explores speed dating in this chapter and notes that most humans consciously describe the qualities that they are looking for in a partner but then end up choosing to date or being attracted to someone who does not possess any of the listed attributes. Again, when asked by the researchers who oversaw the speed dating research, participants could not consciously state why they were intuitively drawn to people who did not fit their lists.

Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men

Although Harding's name appears in the chapter's title, he is not its main focus. Gladwell simply uses him at the beginning to demonstrate that appearance or irrelevant features often cause humans to use thin slicing negatively. In Harding's case, even though he was not particularly intelligent or moral, he was able to get elected because "he looked Presidential." Harding served only two years in office (he died from a stroke), yet he has been noted by many historians as one of the worst presidents in American history. Gladwell uses this "first impression" example as a starting point for discussing gender and race biases. He includes several Initial Association Tests (IATs), which test individuals' association of males and females with careers and home, and then he discusses Harvard's Race IAT, a computerized test that requires participants to match photos of European Americans and African Americans with negative and positive...

(The entire section is 2531 words.)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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 believe in racial or gender...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)