|Blink: The Power of Thinking Without
With the publication of several best-selling books,
reporter Malcolm Gladwell has emerged in the 2000s as
one of the most influential figures in American letters.
Extending the trademark style that he developed in
2000ís The Tipping Point, Gladwellís research in
2005ís Blink spans many different disciplines and
areas of study in a dazzlingly comprehensive analysis of
the mechanisms and processes that underlie our ability
to make decisions rapidly.
Gladwell begins with several chapters that illustrate
the ways that very accurate decisions can be made
rapidly. Indeed, according to the anecdotes and case
studies that the author presents in the introduction and
the first several chapters, our initial, intuitive
response to a person, object, or event -- the one that
transpires in the first few milliseconds of our exposure
to it -- is often the one that proves to be correct.
This ability is predicated upon the process that
Gladwell terms "thin slicing." The human mind can often
examine a situation and skim all of the information that
is necessary to make a correct decision and plot a
course of action almost instantaneously. The most
accurate "thin slices" are often those that involve our
assessment of the emotional or mental states of others.
Apparently, evolutionary processes that have unfolded
over the course of many millennia have allowed us to be
able to assess the actions and motives of our companions
with a split-second glance.
However, although the human mindís ability to
thin-slice is remarkable, its utility is tempered by a
number of distinct characteristics. First, the
thin-slicing mechanisms in the brain reside almost
entirely in the unconscious, rendering it impossible for
us to access them deliberately. Indeed, as Gladwell
points out, we often donít know what our unconscious
knows or how it has helped us to make a decision or
choose a course of action. It seems that people often
develop their own, alternate accounts of decision-making
to explain away the brainís rapid thin-slicing ability.
Over the course of the next several chapters,
Gladwell recounts the ways in which our sociocultural
context can impede our ability to benefit from the
thin-slicing skill of the unconscious. Most
significantly, he asserts, our vast stores of prejudices
and biases can often hijack the unconscious and disallow
access to our thin-slicing, intuitive abilities.
However, once we learn the power of rapid cognition,
we can develop and incorporate solutions that will
protect our thin-slicing unconscious from the undue
influence of prejudice. Gladwell suggests implementing
techniques that will short-circuit prejudices in our
every day lives. In this way, he contends, we can
reconnect with and benefit from the power of the blink.
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|Blink Chapter Summaries
Introduction: The Statue that Didnít Look Right
Gladwell begins with an account designed to illustrate the way our
instantaneous reactions to people, objects, and problems are often the
most accurate responses. His story relates the details surrounding the
acquisition of a particular type of statue called a kouros by the J.
Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Though there are very few intact
examples of this type of statue in existence, the museum was offered a
nearly perfect specimen by a dealer in 1983.
As is standard, the museum initiated an investigation into the metal
work statue, seeking to validate its authenticity. Preliminary
scientific analysis of the piece seemed to corroborate its ancient
origins, and the sheaf of documentation the dealer provided to the
museum offered a convincing account of its ownership throughout most of
the twentieth century. Convinced, the museum closed the deal and began
preparations to display the piece. However, in the interim, an array of
experts who examined the statue reported mixed feelings about it,
ranging from confusion to revulsion.
The accumulation of a large number of these negative intuitive responses
to the statue finally prompted the museum to re-open the investigation.
Eventually, it was determined that the ownership documents were forged,
and the scientific evidence dating the piece had been misinterpreted.
The intuitive responses -- which Gladwell terms the "blink" -- proved to
The investigation into the documents was somewhat vague and this created
an underlying question as to the authenticity of the research that was
done. Ultimately, later in the book, it was deemed to be very poor. As a
result, this led to problems.
Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices: How A Little Bit of Knowledge Goes
a Long Way
In this chapter, Gladwell introduces the concept of the "thin slice,"
which refers to the way that our unconscious minds can make what are in
many cases highly accurate assessments in a very short amount of time,
often a matter of seconds. Although Gladwell employs a number of
different concepts to illustrate the power of thin-slicing, he discusses
the example of the work of a research team assessing interaction
patterns and long-term compatibility in married couples.
The research team that Gladwell observed would videotape married couples
having a discussion about a seemingly innocuous subject, such as the
idea of acquiring a family pet. On the surface, these conversations
usually seemed to be indicative of nothing more than playful banter and
typical conversation. However, when the research team analyzed the
videotaped conversations carefully, another picture would often emerge.
Looking for telltale facial expressions, body language patterns, and
gestures, the team began to formulate a system that could reveal many
deep-seated problems and points of contention in the marriage. As their
technique became increasingly sophisticated, they found that even a few
seconds of the tape could reveal with great accuracy whether the couple
would remain married in the long-term. Later, another team of
researchers designed an experiment in which they allowed non-experts to
examine short excerpts from audiotapes of doctorsí voices, and they were
able to make conclusions about which of the physicians would be sued for
malpractice with a great deal of accuracy. Gladwell concludes that this
validates the innate human ability to thin-slice our environments.
It should also be noted, that Vladimir, the cloaked virtual figment that
Gladwell devised, became a noted figure by the end of the Chapter. The
introduction of Vladimir is important as his actions in the next chapter
foreshadow the theme of the story.
Chapter 2: The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions
One of the confounding aspects of the mindís ability to thin slice and
make accurate judgments rapidly is that our conscious minds often have
little or no understanding of this process. Indeed, in many cases, as
Gladwell points out in this chapter, our perceptions of the way we make
decisions are often woefully misguided. Furthermore, we often tend to
underestimate the amount of influence that outside factors exert upon
our unconscious decision-making processes.
To illustrate these points, Gladwell describes the outcomes of several
recent experiments. In one study, participants were asked to make
sentences from scrambled words that all include subtle cues, such as
words that describe the concept of old age or politeness. Without
realizing it, the subjects completed the experiment, and then
unconsciously adopted the behaviors that had been subtly suggested to
them in the seemingly random sentences they had untangled.
The concept that Gladwell terms the "storytelling problem" demonstrates
that we often invent wholly incorrect accounts of our behaviors and
choices. Humans seem to be naturally ill at ease with ambiguity, so we
unconsciously create stories that account for decisions we make or
actions we take as a result of thin-slicing our environment.
Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and
Although Gladwell has heretofore made a case for the accuracy of
thin-slicing, most of us have a negative association with snap
judgments, and for good reason: they are often incorrect. In this
chapter, Gladwell considers the impact of what he calls the Warren
Harding error on the accuracy of our ability to make rapid judgments. He
asserts that when we allow our unconscious prejudices and biases to
circumvent the "blink" process, our judgments are often inaccurate.
Gladwell first illustrates this argument using the story of former
President Warren Harding, whom many historians have claimed rose through
the political ranks to finally assume the office of the presidency based
largely on the power of his classically attractive "tall, dark, and
handsome" physical appearance. With no discernable political skills,
other than an impressive speaking voice, Harding shrunk from the
responsibilities of his office, and is now often identified as one of
the worst presidents in history. Voters allowed their deep-seated
prejudices about the connotations of physical attractiveness make their
Gladwell also recounts the results of a number of other research studies
that demonstrate the way that our prejudices mislead us, usually
unconsciously and despite our best intentions. When our biases hijack
our thought process, the "thin slicing" layer of the unconscious, which
is capable of highly accurate decision-making, is never accessed.
Chapter 4: Paul Van Riperís Big Victory: Creating Structure for
In this chapter, Gladwell outlines another type of problem that can
hamper our ability to make accurate decisions -- too much information.
In each of the examples that he discusses -- including emergency room
triage, improvisational comedy performances, and military war games --
the consideration of too much data can sidetrack decision makers and
mire them in a state of confusion.
In the case of Paul Van Riper, Gladwell recounts the unorthodox military
philosophy of one the countryís most decorated Marine officers. In
retirement, Van Riper was asked to play the role of a rogue Middle
Eastern leader in a military exercise that served as part of the
preparations for the 2003 invasion of the Persian Gulf. The opposing
team -- representing the U.S. forces -- came to the exercise with a
plethora of data, often interrupting the fighting to engage in long
sessions of analysis.
Van Riperís team took the opposite approach, making snap decisions to
take bold chances when the opportunity presented itself. In a short
time, Van Riperís team had used this approach to achieve a position of
strategic advantage over the U.S. team. Similarly, an emergency room
doctor pioneered a way to diagnose heart attacks quickly and with great
accuracy -- by using far less information than was standard. Often,
Gladwell contends, the best decisions are made by relying on only a few
pieces of high-quality information.
Chapter 5: Kennaís Dilemma: The Right -- and Wrong -- Way to Ask People
What They Want
This chapter focuses on another part of the decision-making process --
the context in which a judgment is made. Gladwell employs a number of
examples and case studies, most of which are drawn from the world of
marketing and focus groups. His chief contention is that in many
situations, people will make the wrong snap judgment if they are being
asked to decide something that is outside of their range of knowledge.
Also, Gladwell demonstrates that removing a problem from its normal
context makes it very difficult for people to make accurate decisions.
In short, he argues that focus groups often fail to return accurate
assessments because they both stretch the limits of the participantsí
expertise and remove the product assessment decision from the normal
context in which it would be made. In two instances that Gladwell cites
-- evaluations of musician Kennaís potential for Top 40 radio success
and the infamous blind taste tests between Coke and Pepsi -- focus
groups and experts reached starkly different conclusions in different
settings. He asserts that to be effective, market research must match as
closely as possible the environment in which the consumption of a
product -- whether it is rock music or soda -- will actually occur.
Chapter 6: Seven Seconds In the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading
In this chapter, Gladwell details some of the negative outcomes that can
occur when a series of erroneous judgments are made in rapid succession.
The author uses the killing of immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of
NYPD officers as a case study in the way that misjudgments can
Gladwell provides context for the discussion by offering a brief
overview of the history of mind reading. Although this activity has long
been associated with charlatans claiming ESP, the author notes that
several researchers and experts who have undertaken intense, sustained
studies of the vagaries of human facial expressions have been able to
demonstrate a heightened level of perception and insight about the
interior emotions and thought processes of other people.
Conversely, individuals with certain types of brain damage or disorders
such as autism have an inability to decode facial expressions, and this
severely impedes their ability to function normally in social settings.
According to Gladwell, the kind of adrenaline rush that results from
high-speed pursuits can cause the brain to mimic autism, temporarily
inhibiting the ability to decode facial expressions. This, the author
claims, was likely the precipitating factor in the seemingly
inexplicable death of Diallo.
Conclusion: Listening with Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink
In a short epilogue, Gladwell recounts the way that a simple innovation
in audition practices incited a revolution in the deeply entrenched
traditions of the classical music world. In one audition, an orchestra
instituted the use of screens to conceal the identity of the candidates,
because the son of an administrator was auditioning, and it was feared
that nepotism might unduly influence the process. As other orchestras
began to implement this practice, a strange thing happened: orchestras
rapidly began to be diversified by women and minorities. In conditions
of anonymity, merit won out over the many prejudicial factors that had
long prevailed in the era of non-anonymous auditions. Gladwell concludes
the book by encouraging readers to take this lesson to heart and apply
the lessons of Blink to make positive changes in their decision-making
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