To over-generalize, there are two types of nonfiction books worth reading: those written by an eminent specialist summarizing the current state of his or her field, often focusing on the singular idea that defines the author's career; and those written by a journalist without special knowledge about the field, tracking a particular idea, crossing the boundaries of disciplines when required by the pursuit. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink
is a bravura example of the latter sort of book: he ranges through art museums, emergency rooms, police cars, and psychology laboratories following a skill he terms 'rapid cognition.'
Rapid cognition is the sort of snap decision-making performed without thinking about how one is thinking, faster and often more correctly than the logical part of the brain can manage. Gladwell sets himself three tasks: to convince the reader that these snap judgments can be as good or better than reasoned conclusions, to discover where and when rapid cognition proves a poor strategy, and to examine how the rapid cognition's results can be improved. Achieving three tasks, Gladwell marshals anecdotes, statistics, and a little bit of theory to persuasively argue his case.
Photo courtesy Brooke Williams
Gladwell's discussion of 'thin slicing' is arresting: In a psychological experiment, normal people given fifteen minutes to examine a student's college dormitory can describe the subject's personality more accurately than his or her own friends. A cardiologist named Lee Goldman developed a decision tree that, using only four factors, evaluates the likelihood of heart attacks better than trained cardiologists in the Cook County Hospital emergency room in Chicago:
For two years, data were collected, and in the end, the result wasn't even close. Goldman's rule won hands down in two directions: it was a whopping 70 percent better than the old method at recognizing patients who weren't actually having a heart attack. At the same time, it was safer. The whole point of chest pain prediction is to make sure that patients who end up having major complications are assigned right away to the coronary and intermediate units. Left to their own devices, the doctors guessed right on the most serious patients somewhere between 75 and 89 percent of the time. The algorithm guessed right more than 95 percent of the time. (pp. 135-136)
The secret is knowing which information to discard and which to keep. Our brains are able to perform that work unconsciously; when rapid cognition breaks down, the brain has seized upon a more obvious but less correct predictor. Gladwell examines how race and gender affect car dealers' sales strategy, the effect of height on salary and promotion to top corporate positions, and unjustified police shootings of civilians to demonstrate that our unconscious biases have genuine and sometimes tragic consequences. He also examines how the wrong thin slice, in focus groups or in a single-sip test of soft drinks, can lead businesses to mistake consumer preferences.
There are things that can be done to redirect our mind along lines more conducive to accurate thin slicing: we can alter our unconscious biases; we can change products' packaging to something that tests better with consumers; we can analyze numerical evidence and make decision trees; we can analyze all possible facial expressions and their shared meanings, then watch for them on videotape; and we can evade our biases by blind screening, hiding the evidence that will lead us to incorrect conclusions.
This whirlwind tour of rapid cognition, its benefits and pitfalls, has only a few pitfalls of its own. Written in a forthright and conversational style, Gladwell makes friends with his readers, but rarely challenges them. This is science writing for the broadest possible audience; people with scientific training may chafe at the substitution of anecdote for study results, and may wish that the author had gone into greater depth with any or all of his examples; others may wonder how they can broaden the reach of their own attempts at rapid cognition. Gladwell may whet their appetites but will not fully satisfy those readers. His focus is narrow, and this helps him meet his goals; perhaps this is appropriate for a book titled Blink.