Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Gladwell's talent is for weaving together scientific research findings from fields as diverse as sociology, psychology, criminology and marketing with an anecdotal style to create new ways of looking at things for the popular reader.
Blink, Gladwell's follow-up bestseller to The Tipping Point, is a more purely psychological work, leaning on the research of Timothy Wilson, a professor at the University of Virgininia who has written about the 'adaptive unconscious', that part of our minds which can lead us to good decisions even though we don't know how we make them; and Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who is an expert on how people arrive at decisions under pressure.
Blink is an attempt to bring to the public's eye this emerging area of psychology, rapid cognition, that has received little popular attention.
First impressions and snap judgments
The ability to come to lightning-quick conclusions, Gladwell notes, evolved for the sake of survival. In life-threatening situations, humans needed to be able to make accurate snap judgments based on the available information.
Much of our functioning occurs without us having to consciously think, and we move back and forth between conscious and unconscious modes of thought. We work with, in effect, two brains: the one that has to deliberate over things, analyze and categorize; and the one that sizes things up first and asks questions later.
Often, the snap judgments we make about a person are as accurate as if we had observed that person for much longer periods. The psychologist Nalini Ambady did a study which found that the assessment which college students gave of a professor's effectiveness after watching a two-second film clip of them was the same as the assessment given by students who had sat in their class for a whole semester.
As children we are taught not to trust these impressions, but to 'stop and think', 'look before you leap' and not to judge a book by its cover. While there is merit in these things, Gladwell points out that it is not always the best strategy to gather as much information as possible before acting. Often, the extra information does not make our judgment any better, yet we continue to put all our trust in rational, conscious deliberation.
Gladwell introduces the reader to the concept of 'thin-slicing', which is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience”. Even the most complex situations, he says, can be 'read' quickly if we can identify the underlying pattern. Most of a chapter is devoted to the work of psychologist John Gottman, who after many years observing couples in action, is able to predict whether they will stay together or divorce with 90 per cent accuracy - after watching them for only a few minutes.
Art experts can often assay very quickly the authenticity of a work of art, getting an actual physical feeling as they stand before a sculpture or a painting. Something tells them this is the 'real thing', or a fake. Basketballers are said to have 'court sense', able to read the play of the game in an instant, and great generals have 'coup d'oeil' meaning 'power of the glance'. Gladwell tells of the fireman who ordered his team out of burning house just in time. His men were trying to put out a fire in the kitchen, but there was something not quite right about the fire - it was too hot. Only later did it emerge that the main fire was in the basement, hence the greater heat coming up through the floors. A moment after they left the house, it erupted, and probably would have killed them if they stayed inside. The fireman did not know why exactly he suddenly decided to withdraw his team, he ‘just knew’.
By the laws of probability, most decisions made under pressure should be flawed ones, yet psychologists have found that people routinely make correct judgments most of the time, even with limited information. One of Gladwell’s surprising points is that we can actually learn how to make better snap judgments, in the same way that we can learn logical, deliberative thinking. But first we have to accept the idea that thinking long and hard about something does not always deliver us better judgments, and that the brain actually evolved to make us think on our feet.
Looking like a leader
The positive aspect of thin-slicing is the ability to make a quick and correct judgments. But it also carries the negative aspect of ones that are hasty and wrong.
The United States elected Warren Harding to be president, Gladwell suggests, essentially because he was tall, dark, good-looking and had a deep voice. The 'Warren Harding effect' is that we believe a person has courage, intelligence and integrity according to their appearance – even if, in Harding's case there is not much going on below the surface (he was one of America's worse presidents in the short time he was in office).
Gladwell organized for a study to be done on the height of chief executive officers of large American corporations. He found that as well as being predominantly white and male, their average height was just under six feet tall. 58 per cent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are over six feet, compared to only 14.5 per cent of the American population. This suggests that beyond the need for leadership, we require theappearance of a leader. The taller a person is, the more confidence we tend to have in him – whether justified or not.
Tragic first impressions
Wrong first impressions can have more tragic consequences. Gladwell provides a lengthy analysis of the shooting of an innocent man, Amadou Diallo, in the Bronx area of New York City. Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was standing outside his house to get a breath of fresh air when a car of four young, white, male undercover police happened to be driving down his street. They wondered what he was doing, leaping to the conclusion he was dealing drugs or the lookout for a robbery. When they called out to him, because he was afraid he went back inside the house. For the policemen this only seemed to confirm his guilt. They ran in after him, shooting, and Diallo died on the spot from bullet wounds.
Gladwell does not believe that the men were particularly racist, but he quotes the psychologist Keith Payne: “When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe”. When we are under pressure to make a split second judgment, we cannot consciously cancel out our implicit associations, or prejudices, because our first impression is coming from below the level of consciousness.
Older, more experienced police may be wiser in similar situations, because their decisions are based more on past experience of what is likely to happen next rather than appearances. Many experienced law enforcement officers have an excellent ability to read the micro expressions on people's faces, which may last for a fraction of a second yet reveal much about a person's motivation.
Too much information
Cook County Hospital in Chicago, the one TV show ER is based on, found that a lot of its resources where being spent on hospital beds for people who might just have a heart attack. There was no standard way of making a judgment about how at risk a person was, so the hospital had to err on the side of caution. To save money, it decided to try out a quick way of assessing people at risk from cardiac arrest called the Goldman algorithm. No other hospital had been willing to try it because they did not believe that a condition so serious could be so quickly diagnosed one way or the other. Doctors were used to getting as much information as possible about patient history before making a judgment. But the algorithm worked superbly, freeing up doctors’ time and the hospital's money.
In the medical field, it is commonly assumed that the more information practitioners have, the better their decisions. But this is frequently not so. More information can confuse the issue, leading to a wide variety among doctors of methods of treatment of the same condition. It has been demonstrated that the more information a doctor takes in about a patient, the more convinced they become of their diagnosis. But the rate of correctness of the diagnosis does not increase with the more information they obtain.
The lesson: We feel we need a lot of information to be confident in our judgments, but often that extra information, while giving us the illusion of certainty, makes us more prone to mistakes.
This is only a glimpse of the contents of Blink. You will need to get it for the many fascinating cases, anecdotes and intellectual detours - from Tom Hanks' star appeal to speed dating to military strategy to fake Greek statues to the how orchestras handle auditioning - that illustrate Gladwell's thesis of the power of first impressions.
It has been suggested that Gladwell's books are essentially an unsatisfying cobbling together of things he has written for the New Yorker, but his writing style, leaping from one idea and example to another, is more accurately the result of a fascination with ideas – whatever their source. The English scholar Isaiah Berlin once made a distinction between those thinkers who were like a hedgehog, knowing one 'big thing' that guides their view of life, and those who were like a fox, knowing many things. Gladwell is best likened to a bee, buzzing around to collect various trends, ideas, pieces of research and examples to turn them into a single whole.
While the shortish Blink makes a perfect companion for a plane trip, the fact that it is so easy to read should not lessen its achievement: bringing a complex area of psychology to the attention of the public, and possibly improving our lives in the process.
“They didn't weigh every conceivable strand of evidence. They considered only what could be gathered in a glance. Their thinking was what the cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer likes to call 'fast and frugal'. They simply took a look at the statues and some part of their brain did a series of instant calculations, and before any kind of conscious thought took place, they felt something, just like the sudden prickling of sweat on the palms of the gamblers...Did they know why they knew? Not at all. But they knew.”
Born in 1963 in the UK, Gladwell is the progeny of an English mathematics professor father and a Jamaican psychotherapist mother. Growing up in Ontario, he attended the University of Toronto, where he graduated in 1984 with a degree in history.
For almost a decade Gladwell worked at the Washington Post, first as a science writer and then its New York City bureau chief. Since 1996 he has been with the New Yorker, writing regular feature articles. He was named by Time magazine as one of its '100 Most Influential People'. Blink has sold around 1.5 million copies and been translated into 25 languages; it has also spawned a couple of parody titles including Blank: The Power of Not Actually Thinking At All. It may also be made into a film, with actor Leonardo di Caprio having purchased the rights for $1 million.
Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success was published in 2008, and David and Goliath in 2013.
Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on the mind, personality, and human nature by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)