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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Paperback – April 3, 2007
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About the Author
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. He is the host of the podcast Revisionist History and the author of The Tipping Point, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw. Prior to joining The New Yorker, he was a reporter at the Washington Post. Gladwell was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. He now lives in New York.
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Gladwell is also careful to examine the flipside of this phenomenon: the times when "thin slicing" misleads us or gives us the wrong results. For instance, he presents examples where the mind works based on biases that don't necessarily enter the realm of conscious thought, but are nevertheless there (age, race, height, and so on).
It's a great topic and Gladwell sets it up with some wonderful examples, but then the book begins to have problems. First, the book is a little too anecdotal. Anyone who has ever had a 200-level psych class knows that what looks like cause and effect may be accounted for by an independent variable that wasn't considered (e.g., concluding cancer rates are higher in some area of the country because of pollution, when in fact the area has higher smoking rates as well). Given this, I found that too often conclusions are made on basic handwaving, or that important aspects of studies are not mentioned. For instance, Gladwell describes a study were observers are asked to determine certain characteristics (such as truthfulness, consciensciousness, etc.) of students by observing their dorm rooms; but, never does he mention how exactly one would determine these characteristics of individuals in a scientific manner for comparison. Such omissions leave the reader a little less than convinced.
Nevertheless, even with this flaw the first third of the book supports the thesis and makes for the usual entertaining reading; but things derail from there. The examples start to seem more peripheral: a rogue commander beating the conventional forces in a war game exercise, an artist known as Kenna who apparently should have made it big but didn't (why this example is interesting I've yet to figure out), and some rehash about coke vs pepsi from one of his older articles.
By the end of the book the whole thing derails into examples that just don't seem appropriate for the topic. Sure a study of why Pepsi always does better than Coke in blind tastes tests is interesting (and you can read his article on this without buying the book on Gladwell's web site), but does a study of "sips" vs "whole-can drinking" - people prefer sweet for sips (Pepsi) - really say something about unconscious rapid cognition?
One of Gladwell's greatest strengths is in recognizing interesting things, and then bringing them into conscious awareness so we actually realize these things are happening (whether it be tipping points or rapid cognition). I think he's partly achieved that in this book, but it doesn't come together the way the Tipping Point does. One gets the idea that this topic may have been better handled in an article rather than a full blown book.
The writing is enjoyable - I read the most of it in a single plane flight. Some of the insights provide building blocks for understanding how certain professionals (people who practice a subject or skill for many years) are able to develop an additional sense about things -- gamblers, art curators, policemen. They are essentially seeing something that doesn't register at the conscious-level but provides them a gut-feel about the thing. Actually, I should say that these articles are how this MIGHT be happening - it's more speculation based on the diverse theories of a number of different researchers. Individually the stories and ideas are believable. Unfortuately, Gladwell fumbles in trying take them into some unified theory that is comprehensible let alone cohesive -- at times you wonder "where is he going with this?". Without that thread the indivudal beads get lost and fade into memory as clever ideas...and not much more. Without confidence in the grand idea, the individual pieces begin to feel simply exploratory. It's a shame because there are some remarkable ideas. He's a good documenter of curiousities of research (sort of like a Ken Burns is to historical things) so the storytelling is good enough for entertainment. Another reviewer likened it the addage about Chinese food, tasty but hungry an hour later. I agree. Flawed but still some interesting ideas to puzzle over.
The book has four points. First, is that the human mind has an impressive ability to process information at an unconscious level very quickly. For instance, by listening to a brief snippet of a doctor speaking, even if the recording is digitally altered so that all you can hear is the tone, you can very accurately determine whether the doctor has good bedside manner. Similarly, by watching a few seconds of a college professor's lecture, even with the sound turned off, you can make a remarkably accurate determination of whether the professor is a good lecturer.
The second point is that this ability often leads us astray. Our unconscious can be shown to harbor prejudices against blacks, women, and others, and these prejudices are bad for both us and society. And on a less socially relevant note, people consistently prefer the taste of liquor that comes in fancy bottles. The book gives absolutely no advice about how to improve our unconscious's attitudes towards either minorities or conventional packaging of foodstuffs.
Without explicitly mentioning it, the book points out the importance of making decisions based on relevant information, rather than large quantities of irrelevant data. The best example of this is given in the introduction. An apparently ancient Greek statue is analyzed with all sorts of fancy chemistry equipment, and the lab technicians come back and say that the marble is indeed from an ancient Greek quarry and that the surface of the marble has a chemical composition that is usually the result of centuries of weathering. On the other hand, any art historian worth his salt can tell you that the feet of the statue are carved in a style never seen in any other Greek statue. While the information from the chemists seems more concrete (their equipment costs more), the relevant fact here is the style of carving in the feet-the statue is a modern forgery.
Finally, the book talks about ways to improve decision making under intense time pressure, for instance in a military engagement or police shootout. The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that practice making split-second decisions is important. Also, if you can slow down the pace of the engagement in order to allow yourself more time, you should do so, but if slowing down gives your opponents a greater advantage, you shouldn't.
If you have made it through this review, there is certainly no need to read the book. Every idea Gladwell had has been summarized and clarified here. Which should really make you wonder how he stretched the book past 20 pages, let alone 200!