Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

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Chapter 6 and Conclusion

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Chapter 6: Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading

In the late 1990s in a poor, crime-infested neighborhood of New York City, Guinea native Amadou Diallo made the unfortunate choice to step outside his apartment late one night. As he did so, four plainclothes police officers patrolling the area noticed him. Thinking that he looked similar to a rapist who had been reported in the area, believing him to be defiant when he didn't move away from them as they approached, and eventually mistaking Diallo's hand pulling something out of his pocket for his drawing a gun, the police officers made the tragic decision to shoot Diallo. Afterward, the police confessed to one another that they thought one of the officers had been shot, but instead the officer had lost his balance and fallen backward. Diallo's apparent refusal to respond to the officers had more to do with his shyness and a stuttering problem, and the object that looked like a gun in the night turned out to be Diallo's wallet. He was simply reaching for his identification to show the police officers. This example, Gladwell claims, demonstrates "mind reading" gone terribly wrong.

From this point, Chapter 6 focuses mainly on how humans "mind read" others' intentions through facial expressions and gestures. Gladwell introduces the studies of Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman who tediously developed the Facial Action Coding System, which codes facial expressions and lists all of the muscles needed to make just one expression. This idea of being able to mind read another human being also explains why autistic individuals are sometimes described as "mind blind." They have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues and trying to think like someone else. Ironically, being mind blind for brief periods of time can actually be beneficial. Gladwell cites examples of police officers who found themselves in tense situations and were able to slow down the situation in their minds and react purely from their training and from what they saw rather than trying to guess what someone else was thinking. This ability is hindered when humans are paired with one another, as seen in the Bronx police officer case.

Conclusion: Listening With Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink

Gladwell argues in his conclusion that humans make errors when making snap decisions because they are careless with their powers of rapid cognition. We fail to realize how easily our subconscious mind can be influenced. He cites one final example—that of Julie Landsman, a French horn player. Landsman participated in a blind audition for a well-known orchestra. Since it was a blind audition, the music director evaluating Landsman's performance had no idea that she was a woman.

Based on the power of her playing alone, Landsman was hired; however, the music director was astonished and disappointed to learn that she was a woman (it was widely thought at the time that women could not perform certain pieces as well as men). This episode demonstrates the biases that thin-slice thinking can create. At this time, the orchestra world was dominated by men. Blind auditions were rare, as music directors believed they had the ability to evaluate each performer objectively. Landsman's experience, however, suggests that this is not, in fact, true—clearly the musical director who listened to her performance held certain biases against female musicians.

Today, it is standard practice for musical auditions to be done blind, thus eliminating the potential for thin-slice thinking to unfairly impact hiring decisions. The impact of this change can be seen in the current makeup of US orchestras, where the percentage of female performers has increased dramatically. Of course, it's not always possible to alter our environment in such a way as to totally prevent thin-slice thinking (as many orchestras have done). Gladwell's solution is to take charge of the first two seconds that we see something or someone; in doing so, we can develop better awareness of our snap judgments and, hopefully, learn to critically evaluate the biases that may prevent us from making good decisions.

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Chapters 4–5