8.4.10

Blink


Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. 286pgs.

The first time I heard of Malcolm Gladwell was when I got my brother's Christmas wish list this year. On it were two books by this guys, What the Dog Saw and The Outliers. I had no idea what these books were, and I thought the titles rather strange, but I like getting people books as gifts, so I headed off to Chapters to take a look. When I got there, the first book I found by Gladwell was this one... and I was significantly less than impressed. It was my shallowness again, my 'Blink' judgement. Here we have a book with an all white cover, designed to look professional and business like, and look at that subtitle! The power of thinking without thinking? Sounds like some lame self-help book that suckers buy because they want a shortcut through the hard work of life. Still, they were the only books on my brother's list, so I picked up What the Dog Saw and figured I would never give Gladwell another thought. Little did I know that Kristina, who is not quite so prone to judge a book by its cover, actually looked inside some of these books (what a revolutionary concept!). Having done that, she came to the exact opposite conclusion that I did, thought I would like the books, and got me What the Dog Saw for Christmas. You know when you open a present, and your trying your best to smile even though your disappointed, and the conflicting emotions turn your face into a kind of grimace? Yeah... Kristina was quick to explain why she bought the book, and I decided to give it a chance. Since then, I have bought every book Gladwell has written, and Kristina and I are reading them all together. 3 Down, only The Tipping Point left to go (which we have now started, and are continuing to enjoy).

Blink, Gladwell's second book, examines snap judgments and (though he never uses the word himself) intuition. In his words, he wants to explore the first 2 seconds, when we decide much more than we realize (about people, objects, decisions, etc.). Gladwell, in his typical fashion, begins with an interesting story that illustrates his points and then gives us his outline. He lays out 3 tasks which he hopes to accomplish in this book. 1. "To convince you of a simple fact: decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decision made cautiously and deliberately." (14) 2. Answering the question: "when should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them?" (15) 3. "To Convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled." (16) In order to accomplish these tasks, Gladwell takes the reader through numerous situations, from predicting the success and failure of marriages with Gottmann, to what we can learn from someone's bedroom, from judging the authenticy of ancient statues to shoot-outs in the Bronx, and from electing bad presidents to winning (and losing) war games which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Gladwell introduces "Thin Slicing" which is the idea that our brains can extract an extraordinary amount of information from very small pieces, or thin slices, of experience. He then explores how this thin-slicing can go wrong because of our unconscious prejudices, and how we can educate ourselves to listen with our eyers.

What is so enjoyable about reading Gladwell is the way he constructs his arguments. First, Gladwell tells a story. The story is always interesting, puzzling, and involves some questions concerning his topic which are difficult to answer. Then, drawing upon multiple fields and experts in them, he constructs a thorough explanation and answer to the initial story he set out. His arguments, more than seeking to convince (though of course they do that), seek to explain and then rely on their own clarity, coherence, and compelling nature to convince the reader. I never feel like I am being beat over the head with an idea; instead, I feel like I am being led to a discovery, and what I am discovering usually makes a lot of sense.

As well as style, Gladwell doesn't just make his points; he also encourages us to do something with them. Thus, we come to the end of his book and Gladwell encourages the reader to take into account how snap judgments, thin slicing, and the first 2 seconds of an encounter affect our actions and life, and then take control of those moments. Rather than falling completely on the side of 'trust your instinct' or 'slow and steady, think it through' Gladwell recommends a balance.

Perhaps the most striking section for me was two contrasting police stories. In the first, the story that goes so very wrong, 4 officers new to the drug squad and patrolling the Bronx at midnight see an African-American standing in a doorway and peering out into the street. To them, he looks like a point man and lookout for a robbery in progress, so they park the car and approach him. Meanwhile, the man at the doorway is just getting some fresh air, doesn't speak English very well and doesn't understand what is going on. Reacting in fear he turns to run, and, upon getting to the door, reaches into his pocket. The officers, giving chase, think they see a gun, and shoot him 41 times. Brutal, but before you judge, read the book. In contrast, Gladwell also tells the story of another, more experienced and older, police officer chasing 14 year old gang member. This kid actually does have a gun, and the officer, his own pistol in hand, watches, in what he describes as slow motion, as the kid actually draws the gun. But, reading fear on his face, he decides to give him as much time as possible before shooting. In the end, the gang member pulls the weapon out of his pants, drops it on the ground and surrenders. The officer says: "Something in my mind just told me I didn't have to shoot yet." (240)
Gladwell then adds this explanation: "This is the gift of training and expertise — the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. To a novice, that incident would have gone by in a blur. But it wasn’t a blur at all. Every moment — every blink — is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction."

This is a very good book. While I know that Gladwell's style will not appeal to everyone, I think it is worth reading, and that most will find it very interesting.

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