Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Non Fiction, 2005

You could probably sum this book up in one sentence: Have faith in your intuition, but do not be misled by irrelevant information.

The tricky part is in not being misled, and that is what a lot of this book is about.

The first story starts with a marble sculpture, supposedly 2,500 years old, if genuine it would be worth about ten millions dollars. But what if it was a fake? It was given over to scientists to test with all their elaborate equipment: electron microscopes, X-ray fluorescence, high-resolution stereo microscope, mass spectrometry, (I’m sure you’re familiar with these). After fourteen months of painstaking study, the scientists proclaimed it to be the genuine article.

When it was unveiled in front of art historians, with a two-second glance, they instinctively felt it was a forgery. Two seconds. The problem was they didn’t know why they thought it a forgery; it just didn’t feel right. Eventually, they were proved right.

This is what BLINK is about. What the author calls “thin slices” – a brief “view” of something, that can reveal more than a study. This rapid cognition is more often known as intuition.

In one series of tests, it was discovered that strangers who were able to view a married couple talking for two minutes, could determine if their marriage would last with 80% accuracy. All they needed for guidance was to be given a list of facial expressions to look for. Marriage counselors were 53% accurate, just above chance.

Thin slicing is a natural ability; it has to be. When we meet strangers, potential spouses, business people, or work comrades for the first time, we have to make quick decisions. Is this person trustworthy? Are they lying? We make these decisions quickly, and mostly we are right. This book discusses what events or thoughts throw us off track, and into catastrophes, when our “blink” fails us.

Why do we make mistakes? Bling not Blink! Pretty face, good body, sporty car, these are not reliable thin slices. But what is reliable, are fleeting facial expressions, gone in less than a second, but conveying everything. It has been shown that facial expressions are common throughout the world, they are understood in New Guinea, Asia, Africa, America, Europe; they are universal, and they are important.

Gladwell looked at experiments that show by reading or seeing certain images, our attitudes can be influenced without our knowing it. Prejudices that are lurking in our unconscious, express themselves in our actions and thoughts, without our conscious knowledge. The people tested, were not aware that they had been influenced-in fact, they would have denied it. People have little conscious knowledge of what is influencing their actions.

There is a simple word game that can demonstrate this: You ask someone to spell SILK. They do, then you ask them: What do cows drink? Their immediate answer is milk. Some moments later they realize water is the correct answer. But spelling SILK, so similar to MILK, primed them with the wrong answer.

Thin Slicing is the art of making a snap decision based on your unconscious knowledge, your intuition, typically done in the blink of an eye.

A problem with logical analysis is too much information. If the information is too general and not specifically associated with the goal or outcome desired, it will overwhelm and confuse, ending in no decision or a poor decision.

Another chapter of the book discusses how police officers are faced with crucial decisions-to shoot or not to shoot when faced with an armed offender. These decisions are made in less than three seconds. Sometimes they are correct, sometimes-especially when the police are inexperienced-the decisions are wrong and lead to unnecessary deaths. One of the principle causes of error is fear. This can be reduced to a much lower level by placing the police officers in fake, but similar situations a number of times until they are acclimatized. Once this has occurred, they are much better at making these life or death (blink) decisions.

Classical music conductors used to decide on who would be selected to play in the orchestra by listening to the performer for a few minutes. This seemed fair and reliable, but it was not, because the conductor, or judge, could see the candidate. The “thin-sliced” decision was biased by what they saw, rather than on what they heard.

When screens were put up between the conductor and the performer, there was an immediate and profound change in the outcome. Women were suddenly being selected, and Asians! European male conductors did not believe Asians could play European music, or that women could play certain instruments that were considered “male instruments”- for example, the trombone and the French horn. These could only be played by men; it was unthinkable that a woman could master these instruments. When women performers stepped out from behind the screens, conductors were annoyed to see they had chosen a woman as the best musician. Without the screen, the thin slicing of the performance was destroyed by prejudice.

Since the screens have been used in the US, the number of women in orchestras has increased by 500 percent. Before the screens, judges would not choose women to play certain instruments. There were innumerable “logical” reasons: their hands were too small, they didn’t have strong lungs, they didn’t have enough strength in their arms.

So the important part is this: Although correct decisions can be made in a blink of the eye-if extraneous matters like fear or racial bias interfere, then the results will be incorrect.

If we can control the environment, the background, in which rapid cognition takes place-then we can get correct decisions in a blink. If we are aware of how the waters are muddied, then we can take action, as with screens, to get the best possible result in the shortest time.

BLINK describes numerous experiments that clarify our mental processes. It is not the least bit dull, on the contrary, it’s hard to stop reading this book, as one interesting event after another is examined. The author, Malcolm Gladwell is a New York Times journalist.

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