Book Review: Blink

In 1983, an art dealer approached the Getty Museum in California with an ancient Greek statue called a kouros — a sculpture of a male youth — in remarkably good condition. Naturally the museum conducted in-depth tests to determine whether the statue was genuine. It passed all of the scientific and technical tests to determine its authenticity, but when it was shown to expert geologists and art collectors, they identified it as a fake in seconds. The Getty later discovered that they were right.

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s second consecutive national bestseller, examines those first, crucial seconds.

“There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis,” writes Galdwell, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker. His book asks the question: What would happen if we took those instincts seriously?

Blink comes replete with real-life examples of a phenomenon that Gladwell dubs “thin-slicing.” When we thin-slice, he says, our minds take extremely small samples of data and somehow find patterns or keys that we use to draw broad conclusions. In fact, he argues, we do it all the time. It is why car salesmen tend to start their prices higher with women than with men, even when claiming no gender bias. And it is how psychologist John Gottman can analyze a couple for fifteen minutes and predict with 90% accuracy whether or not they will still be married fifteen years later.

As the book progresses, Gladwell challenges his readers’ assumptions regarding the human decision-making process. He writes about the United States military’s 2002 Millennium Challenge, a massive war game that pitted Blue Team (the “good guys”) against Red Team (the “bad guys”). In the scenario, designers outfitted Blue Team not only with superior armies but also with a complete rational analysis of its opponent’s abilities, likely moves, and communications. Red Team, on the other hand, represented a rogue commander in the Middle East threatening to start a war in the region. Despite having a numerical, statistical, and intelligence advantage, Blue Team suffered a severe defeat.

Gladwell attributes Red Team’s victory to its choice of unpredictable methods — for example, using World War II lighting signals and letters in place of radio communications — and to the rogue team’s snap-judgment and ingenuity in the heat of battle. In the face of such tactics, Blue Team’s vast collection of information proved to be a handicap.

From this, the author concludes that too much information can confuse our decision-making. When we have to completely explain everything we do, he says, it hampers the effectiveness of our unconscious thinking. Hidden deep inside us is an instinct born out of experience. Sometimes it is better to go into a situation partially blind, he argues, because too much information overloads our consciousness and prevents our minds from acting on our mysterious, but powerful, unconscious reasoning.

Gladwell’s strength as a writer shines throughout Blink. He has a knack for emphasizing specific points or drawing parallels without being overbearing. In fact, it seems that the more Gladwell emphasizes something the more curious we become. Every chapter engages the reader by beginning with several pages of a dramatic, real-life example. When seeing the war game between Red Team and Blue Team unfold, for instance, one wonders what lesson the author will draw out of it.

Blink also succeeds on a literary level because Gladwell always writes with a specific concreteness in his prose. Even when discussing abstract concepts that could easily turn the book into a theoretical mess, he tackles the information with a wonderful balance of sophisticated intelligence and down-to-earth simplicity. All of his claims come from real-life examples, and every important person that Gladwell interviews he also physically describes, so the reader can form a more visual, comprehensive picture. Instead of writing another psychological study or treatise on social theory, Gladwell writes for the common man living in the real world.

Blink’s pleasant readability has only one hiccup. In his chapter-six discussion of the manifestation of emotions in facial expressions, Gladwell suddenly starts using very technical — and unhelpful — muscle terminology. The reader must trudge through sentences like this: “The inner brow raiser (frontalis, pars medialis) plus the brow-lowering depressor supercilii plus the levator palpebrae superioris (which raises the upper lid) plus the risorius…” In this section I found myself skipping over his long descriptions of which facial muscles were moving because it felt too tedious to follow. In context with the rest of Blink, it seemed quite out of character.

It would be easy for skeptics to doubt the conclusions of Gladwell’s research. Just because thin-slicing is true for marriage, one might argue, doesn’t mean it’s true across the entire board of human snap-judgments. I found some of Gladwell’s experimental findings and statistics tended to raise questions about the details — questions that are never really answered. This is especially true with claims that I found hard to believe at first glance. For instance, Gladwell writes that something as trivial as indicating their race on a test can lower the performance of black students. That’s not something I wanted to accept right away. His use of such specific and diverse examples made me wonder whether any research goes against such findings. If such studied exist, he never brings them up.

That said, Gladwell has a knack for turning the tables on readers who may not like a given conclusion. By exposing the “dark side” of snap-judgments, like a racial bias in our unconscious, he provides hope for solving these problems.
Rather than fear our hidden unconscious, Gladwell encourages readers to harness the “power of thinking without thinking.”

Those who enjoyed The Tipping Point will probably enjoy Blink as well, as it follows in the spirit of understanding the world in order to make it a better place. Anyone interested in the realities of human thinking would do well to pick up Blink. It might surprise you just how wrong — and how right — we humans can be.