Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell

This is the second part of the book review Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingby Malcolm Gladwell. This is the link to the first part of Blink’s review

In Blink Gladwell discusses how people’s subconscious strongly influence their decisions. We like to believe that we make decisions based on reason, but more often than we think, our decisions are based on snap judgments.

Chapter Four: Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory – Creating Structure for Spontaneity

Chapter 4 is about teaching ourselves how to educate our unconscious reactions. Gladwell believes that we can teach ourselves to make better snap judgments. In this chapter he introduces us to people who owe their success, at least in part, to the steps they have taken to manage and educate their unconscious reactions.

The main example is about Paul Van Riper, who served in the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam Conflict, and who had a long and distinguished career in the military. In the spring of 2000, the retired Van Riper was asked by a group of senior Pentagon officials to participate in a large war game called Millennium Challenge ’02. His role would be that of playing a rogue military commander who had broken away from his government in the Persian Gulf and was threatening to start a regional war.

There were two teams: the Blue Team, which had every resource of the Pentagon available at their disposal and the Red Team, led by Van Riper, that had substantially less resources. The Millennium Challenge ended up being a battle between two opposed military philosophies.

In spite of the overwhelming superiority of the Blue Team, Van Riper’s team was successful because Van Riper didn’t behave how the Blue Team was expecting, but made effective decisions at the spur of the moment. The Blue Team relied too much on slow and rational deliberations, while at the same time they underestimated their opponent’s ability to improvise under pressure. Gladwell concludes that the Van Riper’s team did better than the Blue Team not because they were smarter or luckier, but because they were spontaneous.

One of the lessons of the chapter, however, is that spontaneity isn’t random. When people are in a high-stakes situation like a war or a performance, they can only be successful if they know how to act quickly and make snap judgments. However, these judgements follow certain intuitive rules that are the result of previous experiences and are not irrationals, even if people may have a hard time to explain to others why they did what they did.

Chapter Five: Kenna’s Dilemma – The Right and Wrong Way to Ask People What They Want

Throughout the four previous chapters, Gladwell explained how thin-slicing works and how it can be useful in everyday life. However, in this chapter, he presents the “dark” side of thin-slicing, when its use can harm our lives.

Gladwell first introduces the case of rock musician Kenna, whose new style of songs was highly appreciated by those who truly knew music. But when his record was given to an outside market-research firm to test the reactions of listeners, most of them didn’t like Kenna’s music. This is an example when gut feelings about what the public wants were not effective.

My favorite example from this chapter, however, is about Coca-Cola. This is the story of when the results of a consumers’ blind testing were taken too seriously by Coca-Cola’s management, leading to a disastrous change of the original Coke’s recipe, in the effort to prevent Pepsi-Cola from gaining further market share.

The reality is that blind taste tests don’t tell the real story. As Gladwell properly summarized:

“The entire principle of a blind taste test was ridiculous. They shouldn’t have cared so much that they were losing blind taste tests with old Coke, and we shouldn’t at all be surprised that Pepsi’s dominance in blind taste tests never translated to much in the real world. Why not? Because in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind.”

Malcolm Gladwell

The story of New Coke is a very good illustration of how complicated it is to find out what people really think.

Six: Seven Seconds in the Bronx – The Delicate Art of Mind Reading

In this last chapter, Gladwell introduces the story of Diallo, where immediate judgements led to dramatic negative consequences. It is a story where misjudments led up to death.

Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who lived in the South Bronx, one night in 1999 returned to his apartment just before midnight. He then went downstairs and stood at the top of the steps to his building, taking in the night. A few minutes later, a group of four white police officers in plainclothes and bulletproof vests, carrying semiautomatic handguns, turned onto his street and seeing Diallo, thought that he was a burglar.

They stopped the car right in front of the building, and one of the cops asked Diallo if they could talk, but he had a stutter, and spoke imperfect English. He was scared by the officer and suddenly ran into the building, grabbed the doorknob, and reached into his pocket to get his wallet. Unfortunately, as Diallo started pulling out his wallet, one of the officers opened fire, thinking that Diallo was reaching for a gun. The other two officers also came running and started shooting. He was killed.

Carroll (one of the officers) sat down on the steps, next to Diallo’s bullet-ridden body, and started to cry.

…where there should have been a gun, there was a wallet…

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, p. 194

The four officers who shot at Diallo made a series of bad quick judgments: they judged Diallo to be a criminal, believed that he was going to shoot at them with a gun, etc. In the end, however, a jury acquitted the four police officers on the basis that they had made some bad but forgivable mistakes in judgment that night. For many, however, what had happened that night was an example of police racism.

Gladwell believes that what happened to these officers is also an example of temporary autism, triggered by a situation in which there isn’t enough time to think properly.

People with autism are often unable to pick up on the facial cues and nonliteral expressions of others. Gladwell wonders whether it is reasonable that firing a gun could be the kind of experience that would cause temporary autism. Police officers who have been involved with shootings report that in those situations they experience extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, and the sense that time is slowing down. The mind, when facing a life-threatening situation, increases the focus, but when that pressure generates too much stress, behavior becomes extremely aggressive. Many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases because those stressful situations push police officers into a dangerous state of high arousal that can leave them mind-blind.


Blink is a book about those first two seconds.

Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling

Malcolm Gladwell

Blink includes several interesting stories, but we are left with a question: are snap judgments better or worse than deeper analyses? In some of the examples, like in the case of the Getty Greek statue, deeper analyses actually proved to be less accurate than the gut feelings of some experts. On the other hand, in blind tastings, Coca-Cola took consumers’ first impressions led to disastrously change the recipe. In the case of Diallo, the consequences were even more tragic.

Gladwell believes that those who have succeeded at becoming successful decision makers are those who have mastered the art of “thin-slicing.” They have learned to quickly focus on the important and to filter out large quantities of other less important variables.

This decision-making ability can be learned, and is usually more evident in those people who are very familiar with a particular area of expertise. It is not random, but it’s the result of experience, almost like “distilled” experience, I would say.

Blink is a fascinating book, but some criticized Gladwell for the lack of a unified theory. However, the creation of a theory is beyond Gladwell’s purpose.

I have really enjoyed reading Blink. I have also had several experiences where snap judgments opened new doors for me or helped me solve problems that I could not solve using traditional analyses. It is impossible to never make mistakes, as some of the stories clearly show, but in those area where our knowledge is greater, we can learn to thin-slice with a higher degree of assurance that we will make the right calls.

Link to the first part of my review of Blink

Link to the full book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


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