February 2005

Amy Joffe


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

If I'm to follow the tempting advice of Malcolm Gladwell, I would write the review of this book before I'd finished reading it. A "thin-slice" is all the information I need to evaluate and decide what I think. In fact, too much information may actually be counter-productive to effective instant thought processing. So that's what I'm doing. I'm writing this review despite the fact that I have only read the first 70 pages. But I think I've got the gist. I'm thin slicing and ready to critique -- stay with me, you'll see what I mean.

Gladwell's previous book The Tipping Point explains the genesis of a trend and how it takes off until it becomes ubiquitous. He gives the example of how Hush Puppies, a nearly broke company made a huge comeback in the 1990's when a little neighborhood in Soho began buying the old shoes at thrift shops. The book was a fascinating study of how marketing and serendipity come together to create popular culture.

Blink is also written with a partial perspective on marketing as well as psychology. In the afterword (okay, I cheated a little and read that first), Gladwell explains that the impetus to write the book came when a few years ago, he decided to grow his hair long. As an African-American with long hair, he was subjected to some of the treatment that comes from people making snap decisions based on little information. He began to wonder about these thought mechanisms and decided to explore what he calls "the power of thinking without thinking."

Here's the theory: we humans take in a tremendous amount of information in one fell swoop and we're really good at synthesizing it. What we might call a gut feeling or intuition is often far more reliable than cold hard facts and Gladwell illustrates this by way of example. For instance, he begins the book with the story of a $10,000,000 purchase by the Getty Museum of an allegedly ancient statue which turns out to be counterfeit. After 14 months of exhaustive research to determine its authenticity, three European experts proclaim it fake after one glance. How? They just knew.

The problem we have is that we've become too dependent on sophisticated thinking -- analyzing, calculating, rationalizing -- and we're out of touch with our innate ability to read people and situations in the blink of an eye. Remember the math portions of standardized tests? You are presented with complex math problems and four or five possible correct answers. If you actually do the calculation for each problem, you use up a lot of your precious time and will never be able to complete the exam. But if you have a fair understanding of the concept and just eyeball the possible answers you can end up with surprising accuracy. Just blink.

How do we learn to access this ability and how do we avoid what Gladwell calls the dark side of blink? In order to answer those questions or at least give you enough information so you can decide whether or not you want to read this book, I'm going to have to finish reading it myself. If you're ready to decide now, after a thin slice, in a blink, stop reading. If you want to "cheat" and take in more information, keep going...



Two days later -- I'm finished. And maybe I blinked one too many times because I'm a little confused. While I think Gladwell makes a good point in emphasizing the value of our unconscious intuitive skills, much of what he says is contradictory. For example, he tells the story of an improvisational theatre troupe. They are tremendously successful at creating spontaneous action on stage in a seemingly unrehearsed way. Upon closer examination, though, it turns out that hours and hours of practice go into training the actors in how to react to all types of situations on stage, how to make something funny (an interesting footnote and one worth reading about), how to create a drama, etc. He likens it to a basketball game -- the players put in a great deal of practice time and dissection of every possible scenario that may actually occur on the court so that when the actual game begins, they can allow their intuition to take over. Their intuition, however, has been trained in depth for these "spontaneous" moments.

So what happens if you follow your instincts in situations where you lack expertise? Turns out, that could be disastrous. You are far more likely to tune in to cues that may lead you astray, such as physical appearance. Or, you may fail to recognize the inherent value of more complex aesthetics in music or food if you are only exposed to the 'thin-slice.' Gladwell re-examines the failure of 'New-Coke' explaining that taste tests concluded over and over that people preferred Pepsi. When Coke responded by changing their formula to the sweeter style that Pepsi made, they lost market shares. Why? Because a taste test, unless you are a professional trained to discern the nuances of a simple sip, does not give you an accurate reading of what people like. You have to drink a whole can of Coke or Pepsi to decide which you will ultimately prefer. In a similar way, the book purports, only a highly trained musician is a reliable judge when listening to a small sample of music. Most people can't distinguish true talent, Gladwell says, until they have a more complete exposure. This is where things really start to fall apart for me. If we the general public can't use our instincts to reliably determine whether we like or dislike Coke or rock and roll, then what good are the instincts anyway. It seems to me circular reasoning to turn over the most visceral impressions to the trained professional. I knew I liked Bruce Springsteen after hearing 30 seconds of "Rosalita." I didn't need a music critic to tell me it was good.

It seems that thin-slicing is not for the amateur. You must have a cache of knowledge and/or experience lurking in the back of your brain in order to just go for it. But doesn't that take us right back to where we started -- that learning, and analyzing, and scientific examination is inescapable in today's sophisticated world? Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between. Maybe there are certain things that humans are skilled at just by virtue of having lived and soaked up some important information about how people generally behave and how the world functions. We want to encourage the use of those facilities in the same way that we demand high standards for quantatative learning. It would be great if schools could value free thinking as much as rote learning so that we could grow into adulthood with both those resources available to us. Gladwell's book may help create an awareness but may confuse the issue by doing exactly what he warns against -- overthinking.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316172324
277 pages