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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating
User Rating 4 Star Rating (2 Reviews)


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
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.

Malcolm Gladwell

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.
User Reviews

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 3 out of 5
Blink, Member jxw05

This book talks about the decisions that we are able to formulae in the blink of an eye. The decisions that most people would think would take months to conclude can just as accurately take three minutes, with the right data and experience, to conclude. This rapid formulation of an opinion is called thin slicing, where someone uses their past experiences and expertise to form an opinion. A person can thin slice without even knowing that they are thin slicing. The book talks about how our adaptive unconscious is able to not only start to make these decisions for us without us being consciously aware but also our adaptive conscious is also able to send messages throughout our body that allows us to began to react without being consciously aware of why we’re reacting in a certain way. There is also a down side to thin slicing. Because most of thin slicing is based on personal experiences, sometimes these experiences can lead us to make the wrong decisions or conclusions. For instance, the book gives an example of a car dealer who judges someone who walks in the door based upon their race, age, or by what they’re wearing. This often times has led to the wrong decision and consequently, the car dealer has lost out on the commission. In cases such as these, it is usually impossible to thin slice based upon what someone looks like when they walk through the door, therefore it is best to get to know the person before making any judgments. In cases where someone has a negative view about certain races and therefore make incorrect judgments about people of that race, the author offers advice on training your adaptive unconscious to be unbiased so that you may be able to make better and more accurate snap decisions. Also, the author advices using personal knowledge and experience combined with statistical data when trying to decide on things that our adaptive unconscious is incapable of forming snap judgments about.

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