1Gladwell opens Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking with the story of akouros, an ancient Greek statue of a youth that came on the art market and was about to bepurchased by the Getty Museum in California. It was a magnificently preserved work, closeto seven feet tall, and the asking price was just under $10million.The Getty did all the normal background checks toestablish the authenticity of the piece. A geologistdetermined that the marble came from the ancient CapeVathy quarry on the island of Thasos. It was covered witha thin layer of calcite, a substance that accumulates onstatues over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.After 14 months of investigation, the Getty staffconcluded the thing was genuine, and went ahead withthe purchase.But an art historian named Federico Zeri was taken to seethe statue, and in an instant he decided it was fake. Another art historian took a glimpseand sensed that while it had the form of a proper classical statue, it somehow lacked thespirit. A third felt a wave of intuitive repulsion when he first laid eyes on it.Further investigations were made, and finally the whole scheme unraveled. It transpiredthat the statue had been sculptured by forgers in Rome in the early 1980s. The teams ofanalysts who did 14 months of research turned out to be wrong. The historians who reliedon their initial hunches were right.
There is in all of our brains, Gladwell argues, a mighty backstage process, which works itswill subconsciously. Through this process we have the capacity to sift huge amounts ofinformation, blend data, isolate telling details and come to astonishingly rapid conclusions,even in the first two seconds of seeing something. Blink is a book about those first two 2seconds, Gladwell writes.And get this. In one study cited in Malcolm Gladwells amazing and fascinating book, groupsof students were given 42 fairly demanding questions from Trivial Pursuits. Half wereasked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professorand write down everything that comes to mind. Those students got 55.6% of the questionsright.The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligansbefore completing the questions. They scored an average of 42.6 percent. The professorgroup werent brainier or better educated than the hooligan group, but they were in asmart frame of mind from pondering the smartness of professorship. The difference in thescores can mean the difference between passing and failing!What do you surround yourself with? Are your walls weighed down with gothic picturesand do you constantly listen to country and western and Carol Carpenter whilst watchingviolent nihilistic movies? It might be time to think about the frames you program yourmind with! (My words not Gladwells.)In another fascinating study it was found young people exposed to a hidden pattern of agerelated words - such as grey, bingo, frail, slow - then walked out of the test room muchmore slowly than their youthfulness would have predicted and, indeed, much more slowlythan equally youthful people not exposed to these hidden words. They had no consciousawareness of the elderly pattern, but their behaviour changed and they acted older.Surround yourself with a type of person and you will be affected by that type regardless ofhow independent you believe yourself to be.
Doctors and therapists need to be aware that the words they choose to weight theirnarratives with can have profound impact. Telling someone they are going to live maymake them much livelier than telling them they are not going to die! 3Gladwell tells us what we already knew but didnt know why we knew and to what extent.First impressions can be so much more reliable than immersing ourselves in data and thentrying to figure out the truth. This may seem counter-intuitive. The point is that, if you havestudied and absorbed relevant patterns, then your first impressions may be more accuratewhen you have less information to go on, because paying too much attention to the detail offacts and figures can, in certain contexts, obscure accurate and direct perception.So, for example, focussing on a small amount of information about a patient has been foundto be a better guide to whether they are having a heart attack than trying to assess a lot ofdetailed information about their condition. This is not some new age insight but is theresult of long research, studies and anecdotes, all of which Gladwell relates with gusto andrelish.He tells the story of the Vietnam veteran who outwitted the computational might of thePentagon by knowing less and relying on his immediate ex-tinct (his response to thepatterns he observed in the environment) that had been chiselled and honed in the fieldwhere not playing by the rules made you a survivor.A marriage expert can thin slice (take one part of a pattern and instantly understand thewhole pattern of a situation) and know by listening to a couple discussing somethingimportant to them whether they are destined for break-up or not. Margarine tastes betterwhen it is coloured yellow (not white as it was originally) and ice cream tastes better froma round container than a rectangular one! We give reasons and rationalisations for ourbehaviours, but how much do we know about why we do what we do? Split-secondperceptions and decisions may be right or they may be wrong - a fireman gets his men toleave burning building seconds before the floor caves in; a tennis coach with years of
experience finds he can predict with almost 100% accuracy when tennis pro is about todouble fault! When you know a lot you dont have to think a lot, you just know, and thatkind of knowing can instantly ascend from a launch pad built by long years of learning,observation and experience. 4We are reminded how instant summation can also work against us - as when someonesappearance (particularly the height and physical appearance of US presidents) can lead usto assume things about them that just isn’t so. He explains those moments of mind readingas a function of unconscious perception telling us the mood or even plans of others withoutletting our conscious minds in on the secret of how we know.Love at first sight is one of our most endearing beliefs, but it is a romantic delusion. Whatshappening is not an unmediated explosion of energy and data whizzing down the neuraltracks to explode in the sleepy brain centers, but a rapid and automatic shuffling ofaccumulated experience. The intellect is engaged long before we realize it, rather like a pre-selector gearbox on a Route master bus. When we look at something, our brain is testingthe evidence against a database of preferences long before we can say neuron.This unsolicited automatic faculty was called the adaptive unconscious by psychologistTimothy D Wilson. Malcolm Gladwells argument in Blink is that it can be trained. If so, theimplications for business, let alone love, are vast. Car manufacturers, the cosmeticsindustries, the rag-trade, all depend on favorable spontaneous responses to support newproducts. The results of consumer clinics, focus groups, blind tastings and fashion showsare all governed by rapid reactions from panelists and critics.There are moments in Blink when Gladwell seems surprised by this. In the introduction, hetells the story of the Getty Museum buying a Greek kouros which turned out to be what thecatalogue now hedges as about 530BC, or modern forgery.There was perplexity about the purchase and outside experts were consulted. The Metsdistinguished director emeritus was not alone in finding the statue imponderably fresh.Others, too, had had reservations, but that is exactly what connoisseurship is all about:
instructed taste that powers firm critical judgments. Art historians call it having a goodeye. The odd thing is that Getty bought the kouros anyway.Blink tells more stories about judging from first impressions. Students who were shownsilent videos of lecturers and asked to assess teaching ability on appearances alone 5produced results which closely matched judgments based on broader criteria. A Gladwellcoinage is the Warren Harding Error, a President elected because of his comelyappearance that turned out to be a complete turkey.Maybe there are local lessons here? Gladwell seems to be astonished that a psychologistcan predict the success of a marriage from videos showing a woman going through the fullnon-verbal vocabulary of disapproval when confronted with her mate. Awesome? Notreally.Gladwell is one of a new generation of American authors who toggle between culturalcommentary, self-help, marketing, how to, brain function, business studies and futurology.He is a writer on the New Yorker where he contributes a continuous stream of fascinatingschool of Nicholson Baker stories, including a recent masterpiece about why tomatoketchup tastes so good.Gladwells reputation was made five years ago with a book called The Tipping Point, abouthow brand whispering can alter the reputation of products. Gladwell called this ideaepidemics, a coinage that stuck. It was a neat idea and a deserved success; the title, too, hasnow passed into the language of business. Gladwell has a good eye for the premium-priced,branded concept. He is, as he might put it, brilliant at pattern recognition. The money shotin Blink is thin slicing, Gladwells term for that ability to make a rapid judgment on a smallamount of data.Blink has many of the same attributes as its predecessor (it is the follow-up book thepublisher must have been nagging for), but, being a less novel idea, its weaknesses aremore visible. There are, for instance, too many words. Gladwell gets very good press inAmerica for being a fine stylist, but here his prose grates. He uses that interrogative,ruminative-rhetorical style that they probably teach in American journalism school. You
have a dateline, you name names. You start from a little detail and build to a titanic claim. Asense of authority is achieved, spurious because partly fictionalized. You ask a question.Then explain the question. You answer the question. You repeat the names. Then you tellthe reader what the answer was. Possibly repeating the original question for good measure. 6 Thus: It was 07.31 and minus 3 on Labor Day 1983 when Elmer Nerd parked his metallic cherry Popsicle Nissan Maxima XL in the lot of the Acme Surgical Supplies Depot on Chicagos Dan Ryan Expressway. Nerd immediately realized his tires were frozen to the hardstand. "Gee, my tires are frozen to the hardstand," he said. In that instant, Nerd had an insight that was tochange the course of US industrial history. I have just made that up, but you get the idea.But the big flaw in Blink is that there is no developed argument, only a succession of more-or-less, often less, interesting anecdotes. The reader is left uncertain whether rapidjudgments should necessarily assume priority over measured ones. His examples show thatintuition is often over-ruled, as with the Getty Greek statue. This was a mistake. But if it isnot, consequences can be equally unfortunate. In blind tastings, Coca-Cola took consumersfirst impressions too seriously and disastrously changed the recipe.And there is evidence against Gladwell: the whole Western intellectual and scientifictradition, for instance. Spontaneous reactions are not always the best ones. Love at firstsight? They do say marry in haste, repent at leisure. President Bush would be an example ofsomeone relying more on intuition than analysis. One wishes he would engage facultieshigher than the hunch or the gut more often. In Moneyball: The Art of Winning an UnfairGame, Michael Lewis has shown how, in modern baseball, the folksy wisdom of the coach iseasily bested by computer-aided scrutiny.
Well, Im impressed. Here we have a guy who has already written one of the best and mostsuccessful nonfiction books of the past few years, the ubiquitous Tipping Point. Hes theauthor of dozens of unfailingly fascinating articles in The New Yorker. And hes opened hisnew book with a crisp anecdote that suggests each of us possesses a hidden power, which 7we could use to improve our lives if only we knew how to tap it more fully. Thats theessential formula for self-help-book greatness.Im ready to be sucked in.And indeed, Blink moves quickly through a series of delightful stories; all about thebackstage mental process we call intuition. There is the story of the psychologist JohnGottman, who since the 1980s has worked with more than 3,000 married couples in asmall room, his love lab, near the University of Washington. He videotapes them having aconversation. Reviewing just an hours worth of each tape, Gottman has been able topredict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will be married 15 years later. If hewatches only 15 minutes of tape, his success rate is about 90 percent. Scientists in his labhave determined they can usually predict whether a marriage will work after watching justthree minutes of newlywed conversation.Gottman believes that each relationship has a DNA, or an essential nature. Its possible totake a very thin slice of that relationship, grasp its fundamental pattern and make a decentprediction of its destiny.Gladwell says we are thin-slicing all the time -- when we go on a date, meet a prospectiveemployee, judge any situation. We take a small portion of a person or problem andextrapolate amazingly well about the whole. A psychologist named Nalini Ambady gavestudents three 10-second soundless videotapes of a teacher lecturing. Then she asked thestudents to rate the teacher. Their ratings matched the ratings from students who hadtaken the teachers course for an entire semester. Then she cut the videotape back to twoseconds and showed it to a new group. The ratings still matched those of the studentswhod sat through the entire term.
We are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition, Gladwell observes. We assumethat long, methodical investigation yields more reliable conclusions than a snap judgment.But in fact, decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions madecautiously and deliberately. 8This book is only 277 pages long, but there are dozens of stories about thin-slicing. Theresone about a Pentagon war game. Theres one about New Coke, which seemed to test sowell, but flopped in the marketplace. Gladwell shows how the New York City police officerswho killed Amadou Diallo made a series of horrendous snap judgments.Gladwell has us flying around the world and across disciplines at hectic speed, and hesalways dazzling us with fascinating information and phenomena. Take priming, forexample. Two Dutch scientists asked their subjects to play a demanding game of TrivialPursuit. They asked one group to think beforehand about what it would be like to be aprofessor and the other group to think about what it would be like to be a soccer hooligan.The people who were in a professorial frame of mind did much better than the hooligans.One group of African-Americans was asked to take a test without identifying their race onthe pretest questionnaire. Another group was asked their race and that simple act,Gladwell writes, was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associatedwith African-Americans and academic achievement. The African-Americans whoidentified their race did much worse than the people who didnt. The number of questionsthey got right was cut in half.MY first impression of Blink -- in blurb-speak -- was Fascinating! Eye-Opening!Important! Unfortunately, my brain, like yours, has more than just a thin-slicing side. Italso has that thick-slicing side. The thick-slicing side wants more than a series ofremarkable anecdotes. It wants a comprehensive theory of the whole. It wants to knowhow all the different bits of information fit together.That thick-slicing part of my brain wasnt as happy with Blink, especially the second timethrough. Gladwell never tells us how the brain performs these amazing cognitive feats; wejust get the scattered by-products of the mysterious backstage process. (There have been
books by people like Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner that go deeper into the brainchemistry of it.)The thick-slicing side isnt even sure what this book is about. Is it about first impressions,or intuition, or that amorphous blending of what is with what could be that we call 9imagination? In some of his stories, its regular people who are making snap judgments; inothers, its experts who have been through decades of formal training. In someexperiments, the environment matters a great deal; in others, the setting is a psychologistslab. In some, the snap judgments are based on methodical reasoning -- as with a scientistwho has broken facial expressions into discrete parts; in others, the snap-judgment processis formless and instinctive. In some, priming is all-important; in others, priming isdisregarded.MOREOVER, the thick-slicing part of my brain is telling me that while it would be pleasing ifwe all had these supercomputers in our heads, Gladwell is overselling his case. Most of hisheartwarming stories involve the lone intuitive rebel who ends up besting the formal,bureaucratic decision-making procedure. Though Gladwell describes several ways intuitioncan lead people astray, he doesnt really dwell on how often that happens. But Ive learnedfrom other books, notably David G. Myerss more methodical but less entertainingIntuition, that there is a great body of data suggesting that formal statistical analysis is amuch, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to thecourse of liver disease than the intuition even of experts.The thick-slicing part of the brain reminds me that not long ago I read Michael Lewissgreat book, Moneyball, about a baseball executive who used rigorous statistical analysisto clobber fuzzy-minded old pros who relied on their gut impressions. Now Im readingBlink on how impressions can be as reliable as data. This part of my brain wants to knowhow I should reconcile Lewis with Gladwell. What is the relationship between self-conscious reason and backstage intuition? Which one is right more often?For example, if I have to cast my vote for either George I go with my gut Bush or John Ideliberate until the cows come home Kerry, how should I evaluate their rival cognitive
styles? Most important, that thick-slicing part of my brain, which is blessed and burdenedby self-consciousness, wants to know the meaning of what Gladwell is telling it. When he istalking about the cognitive powers of the brain, hes not just reviewing a cool piece ofsoftware. Hes talking about us, the thinking process that is the essence of who you and I 10are.I am perfectly willing to accept that the brain processes huge amounts of information on asubconscious level, thus freeing up conscious neurons for major tasks, like writing,gossiping or remembering humiliating moments from the distant past. I am willing toaccept that we are all to some large extent strangers to ourselves, unaware of how we makethe decisions that shape our lives.But I am not willing to assume, as Gladwell sometimes seems to be doing, that our brainsare like computers -- uniform pieces of hardware that can be tested and reverse-engineered by scientists or psychologists in a lab. Isnt it as possible that the backstage partof the brain might be more like a personality, some unique and non-technological essencethat cannot be adequately generalized about by scientists in white coats with clipboards?Blink is part of a wave of books on brain function that are sweeping over us as we learnmore about the action inside our own heads. This literature is going to have a powerfuleffect on our culture, maybe as powerful as the effect Freudianism had on ourgrandparents time (the last time somebody tried to explain the brains backstage process).WE should be a little wary of surrendering this field to the scientists. Philosophers rangingfrom Vico to Michael Oakeshott to Isaiah Berlin were writing about thin-slicing (which theycalled wisdom) long before the scientists started picking apart our neurons, and longbefore psychologists started showing people snippets of videotape. And much of what theyobserve is more profound than anything you can capture with some ginned-up controlgroup test in a psychology lab.But the big flaw in Blink is that there is no developed argument, only a succession of more-or-less, often less, interesting anecdotes. The reader is left uncertain whether rapidjudgments should necessarily assume priority over measured ones. His examples show that
intuition is often over-ruled, as with the Getty Greek statue. This was a mistake. But if it isnot, consequences can be equally unfortunate. In blind tastings, Coca-Cola took consumersfirst impressions too seriously and disastrously changed the recipe.And there is evidence against Gladwell: the whole Western intellectual and scientific 11tradition, for instance. Spontaneous reactions are not always the best ones. Love at firstsight? They do say marry in haste, repent at leisure. President Bush would be an example ofsomeone relying more on intuition than analysis. One wishes he would engage facultieshigher than the hunch or the gut more often. In Moneyball: The Art of Winning an UnfairGame, Michael Lewis has shown how, in modern baseball, the folksy wisdom of the coach iseasily bested by computer-aided scrutiny.Im sure Gladwell knows all this. Perhaps its unfair to expect him to write a book thatencompasses Isaiah Berlin and the love lab. Its just that in the general culture thepsychiatrists and neuroscientists are eclipsing the philosophers, and thats horrible.If you want to trust my snap judgment, buy this book: youll be delighted. If you want totrust my more reflective second judgment, buy it: youll be delighted but frustrated,troubled and left wanting more.