Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking follows his bestselling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
Blink explores the connection between psychological and neurological research and human intuition. 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.
Snap judgments are often more accurate, even if faster, than our long analyses. Our subconscious is able to recognize patterns and connections and come up with ideas and judgements very quickly.
To introduce the topic, Blink opens with a story about a Greek statue bought in the 1980s by the Getty Museum of Art in California. Initially, officials at the museum were suspicious of its authenticity, but they finally decided to buy the statue after a long investigation. However, once the sculpture went on display, several experts began expressing their doubts. An Italian art historian, Federico Zeri, for example, noticed that the statue’s fingernails seemed wrong. He could not explain why, but he had a bad feeling about the statue. Later it was discovered that the statue was actually a forgery.
As illustrated by this initial story, Blink is a book about intuitive feelings and snap judgments or “gut feelings” which sometimes can be more precise than long analysis. Throughout the rest of Blink, Gladwell refers back to this introductory example to explain why some of the experts were able to knew at first glance that something was wrong with the statue, even if they couldn’t explain why.
Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices – How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way
In the first chapter Gladwell introduces some of the basic rules of snap judgment, or rapid cognition. Humans are capable of making complex, rational judgments about the world, but they’re also capable of something called “thin-slicing”. Thin-slicing means taking a very small amount of information about the world and then drawing big conclusions from this “thin slice” of reality, using a combination of experience and intuition.
The chapter focuses mostly on the research of psychologist John Gottman from the University of Washington. Gottman is able to determine with a 90% accuracy rate whether a marriage will endure. He does so by observing couples for 15 minute or less.
Gottman has become an expert at “thin-slicing” conversations between married couples by focusing on the key aspects of their interactions. Gottman identifies four potential problems in a conversation: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. He learned that the amount of contempt in conversations is a key factor to identify serious problems in a marriage. Over time, Gottman has taught himself to analyze a thin slice of evidence and draw correct conclusions from it.
Gottman’s research is significant because it establishes the idea that we do not need to have a lot of information about someone else to determine that person’s personality and problems.
Chapter 2: The Locked Door – The Secret Life of Snap Decisions
Even if people are good at making snap judgments about the world, they’re bad at explaining their own judgments.
Most of us cannot explain how our subconscious mind works. Our intuition tells us that something doesn’t seem right or tells us that we can trust someone, but we cannot explain exactly why we feel that way.
Vic Braden, for example, one of the world’s top tennis coaches, discovered that he could predict with impressive accuracy when a tennis player was going to double fault. However, he could not explain how he was able to make such prediction to others. He just knew.
Speed dating is another example. Most people know what characteristics they are looking for in a partner, but often end up choosing to date someone who does not have them. Similarly to what happens to the tennis coach Vic Braden, however, those speed “daters” can’t consciously explain why they are attracted to people who don’t match their initial list of desirable characteristics. In other words, people’s real tastes in romantic partners are very different from what they think their tastes are.
There are more example in the world of professional sports, like the tennis player Andre Agassi, who always claimed that he rolled his wrist when hitting a ball, even though experts have determined that he never actually did that. These example make clear that there are limits to rational explanations of what we do.
Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error – Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men
Chapter Three is about stereotyping, those cases in which people’s snap judgments about the world are wrong and even harmful.
Gladwell uses the example of Warren Harding to demonstrate that appearance or irrelevant, but visible attractive features, may cause humans to use thin-slicing in the wrong way and reach the wrong conclusions. Warren Hardin was able to get elected president of the United States because “he looked presidential.”
This happens often with people in elected positions of leadership. People are chosen because they look good, because they are taller or handsome. I still remember someone justifying the removal of the CEO of a small company because, after all, he didn’t look like a CEO, while he was actually very good. Warren Harding was good looking and “presidential” but ended up being one of the worst presidents in American history.
Similarly, even people who rationally avoid being racists, are often capable of making racist snap judgments when they’re under pressure. Gladwell uses the example of car dealerships. It has been found that black people receive from them higher initial offers than white people do. Most car salesmen are not consciously racist, but they may still make racist judgments when they thin slice.
(to be continued)