"Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking"
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 30th August 2010In "Blink", Malcolm Gladwell considers the concept of "thin slicing" - essentially the process (or more accurately processes) by which people make instantaneous judgements based on apparently minimal evidence. These gut reactions can on occasions be surprisingly accurate; equally they can also be shockingly poor, with devastating results.
The book takes the usual approach, with each chapter built around specific anecdotes that are then used to examine a different aspect of the thin-slicing process. He begins with the tale of the Getty museum's acquisition of a 'kouros' (an ancient Greek statue): although the museum had a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it was genuine, many experts who saw it instantly felt that it was a fake - though they struggled to articulate why. Subsequent examples include researchers analysing video tapes of married couples to determine whether they'll get divorced, the apparently "psychic" abilities of experienced firefighters to get out of a burning building just before it collapses, and the surprisingly deep influence of our unconscious prejudices on our supposedly conscious decision-making process. The killing of an unarmed man by New York police officers in 1999 (illustrating an extreme case of thin-slicing going wrong) is probably the most memorable.
Ultimately Gladwell tries to understand how the process of thin slicing might work well, and in what circumstances it can go wrong. The suggestion is that it operates at an unconscious level, with the brain picking up on cues that the conscious mind is unaware of (as for example in the chapter describing the connection between facial expressions and emotional states).
There are a couple of problems with the book though. At times I felt it suffered from a lack of clarity, as if the point that he's trying to make gets a bit lost in the details - the worst example for me being the chapter on the Millenium Challenge war games in 2002. Also as with previous books, I didn't always feel satisfied that the conclusions he drew were necessarily as strongly supported by the evidence presented as he might suggest - in fact at times I felt infuriated! So I'm not completely convinced. Nevertheless it's a thought-provoking idea, Gladwell remains a fantastic story-teller with great enthusiasm, and the anecdotes he's assembled are consistently readable - worth a look just to make up your own mind.