Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Before you can say...
A review by Farhad Manjoo
Is there any contemporary American writer more agreeable than Malcolm
Gladwell? Any writer, I mean, whose work is as reliably well received by so many
different sorts of people -- men and women, liberals and conservatives, business
folk and academics, hipsters and wannabes, the serious and the silly? Search all
you want: You won't find a reader who doesn't at least like Gladwell, and more
often than not your hunt will turn up Gladwell obsessives -- people who may consider
the New Yorker's politics communistic, its fiction dry, and its movie reviews
inscrutable but who nonetheless subscribe to the thing for the work of just this
one staff writer. And when, periodically, one of Gladwell's dispatches pops into
the magazine's pages, the Gladwell obsessive will devour the piece, smile broadly
and consider his subscription money very well spent, for he's now chock-full of
the most precious cocktail party banter -- on why ketchup tastes so good, say,
or why disposable diapers are like microchips, or why we ought to appreciate the
good work of Ron Popeil.
Brace yourself: The release of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,
Gladwell's delightful new book, is sure to inspire orgies of Gladwell-mania
among the with-it set, and obsessives will soon begin popping up all around
Tipping Point, Gladwell's wildly popular first book, established the writer
as a cultural force. The phrase "tipping point" -- which refers to
the point during the spread of an epidemic or a fad at which a certain critical
mass is met and after which, more or less, all hell breaks loose -- is now a
permanent fixture in the corporate lexicon, as common a biz-speak crutch as
"core competencies" or "going forward." A profile of Gladwell
in Fast Company, whose cover this month is graced by the bushy-haired
writer, notes that Donald Rumsfeld has even talked about the war in Iraq as
being a tipping-point phenomenon.
The Fast Company piece also points out that Gladwell's in high demand
in the corporate world, commanding as much as $40,000 per speaking gig at executive
conferences. If you are a fan of Gladwell's work, you might characterize the
situation thus: Gladwell has tipped. He has achieved the sort of celebrity unknown
to most serious writers, and now, with Blink, he's being called a new
guru for our age, our century's Marshall
McLuhan or Peter
Drucker or William
One might suppose that all this attention would have discombobulated Gladwell,
or that the hype would have distracted from the work itself, but that didn't
happen. The writer is in top form in Blink, and the reading here is a
real pleasure. As in the best of Gladwell's work, Blink brims with surprising
insights about our world and ourselves, ideas that you'll have a hard time getting
out of your head, things you'll itch to share with all your friends. At the
heart of the book is a feature of human psychology that Gladwell calls "rapid
cognition" -- the ability of our brains to make snap decisions in the background,
without our ever really consciously knowing about them.
This itself is a surprising idea; we're not aware, Gladwell says, how much
work our brains do for us in secret -- how they're always sizing things up,
extracting meaning out of the tiniest details, constantly making sense of the
world, even when we think we're not paying attention. What's more, as a culture
we're trained to discount such rapid cognition in favor of deeper thinking and
greater analysis. First impressions are never thought to be as reliable as lifelong
Gladwell wants us to revisit the first impression. "The first task of
Blink," he writes, "is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions
made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and
deliberately." Listening to our snap judgments can be tricky business,
however, and Gladwell documents the many ways in which our "internal computers"
can be "thrown off, distracted, and disabled" (or worse -- what if
your unconscious is culturally skewed, preferring white people to black people?).
He argues that to make the best use of our internal machines we have to learn
how rapid cognition works, what screws it up, and how we can control it. That's
the real purpose of Blink: Gladwell believes that if we just paid more
attention to how our brains process things, we'd get a much truer, smarter picture
of what's going on around us, and perhaps a fairer, more egalitarian world.
It seems unnecessary to ask whether Gladwell proves his theories -- can the
reader expect that if the ideas in Gladwell's book took hold, it would, as he
argues, "change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on
the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are
trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted,
and on and on"? Finding an answer is really not so urgent, for Gladwell's
not a polemicist, and the breezy way in which he goes about his prose indicates
that he's concerned more with ideas and factoids than with outcomes.
This goes to what I mean about Gladwell's being so consistently, good-naturedly
agreeable; Blink won't be the best book you read this year, but you might
find that it's the best book that you and someone with whom you usually disagree
with can find some common ground on. There's just no arguing with Gladwell.
A good Malcolm Gladwell piece is a kind of magic trick; you read it for the
giddy pleasure in learning some delicious anecdotes about our society (like
the psychology behind the failure of New Coke, or the secrets to improv comedy)
and for the thrill in seeing the writer tie these disparate artifacts into a
grand theory. Does the grand theory hold up? Maybe, maybe not. But that's an
unfair question, a bit like asking if the magician really sawed his assistant
The Tipping Point was a small book, just a couple hundred pages, but
its success was built on Gladwell's clever repetition of a few well-chosen words
and phrases that seemed, from the moment you read them, destined to enter the
culture -- not just the titular phrase but also the names for concepts, like
"stickiness," or the titles he assigned to the key characters in his
tale, the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. (Gladwell is also generally credited
with coining the word "coolhunter," and the "broken windows"
theory of crime fighting, while not his coinage, was certainly popularized in
The Tipping Point.)
He repeats this technique in Blink (also quite small), creating an entire
nomenclature to describe the intricacies of rapid cognition. We get, first,
"thin-slicing" -- "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations
and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience." By thin-slicing, our
minds can just know; we can look at a situation, gather its essence in
a few seconds or so, and extract meaning, order and truth amid the chaos of
the moment. The first time he met Tom Hanks, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer
tells Gladwell, he instantly knew the actor was different from others he'd seen.
"We read hundreds of people for the part [in Splash], and other people
were funnier than him. But they weren't as likable as him. I felt like I could
live inside of him. I felt like his problems were problems I could relate to."
And really, isn't this how most of us feel about Hanks? "If I asked you what
he was like, you would say that he is decent and trustworthy and down-to-earth
and funny," Gladwell writes. We like Hanks even though we don't know him, even
though we've seen him only in the movies, playing many different people. He
seems likable to us because we've sized him up -- we've thin-sliced.
We do this all the time in our interactions with others; people are constantly
giving off signs about their personalities or their feelings, and we're constantly
interpreting those signs, even if we're not aware of them. But making ourselves
aware of them, Gladwell argues, can make things interesting. He cites a number
of psychological studies that prove the power of thin-slicing. Want to know
a doctor's likelihood of being sued for malpractice? No need to look at the
doctor's professional history, or how well the doctor did in school, or what
tests and procedures the doctor administers to patients. Just pay attention
to how the doctor talks to patients, whether he or she is attentive. (More attentive
doctors are less likely to be sued.) Want to know if a couple will stay together
or break up? A good way to find out is by paying attention to how they interact
with each other. If one partner shows contempt for the other -- defined by one
psychologist as statements that "try to put that person on a lower plane
than you," for instance, "You're scum" or "You are a bitch"
-- then the relationship is probably not going to last.
But what if we can't quite figure out the secret to how we thin-slice certain
situations -- what if we can't determine why we like Tom Hanks or, for that
matter, anyone else? Well, we have to find a way to look behind what Gladwell
calls the "locked door" of our subconscious, and we also have to make
sure that we don't have a "storytelling problem," a mismatch between
our explanation of how we're sizing up a situation and how we're actually sizing
it up. We need to think about the "Warren Harding Error" -- the "dark
side of rapid cognition," the moments when snap judgments can "lead
us astray." (He calls it the "Warren Harding Error" for the mistake
the nation made in 1920, when it elected a pretty awful president just because
he seemed presidential.)
Gladwell has some fascinating insights into this dark side, and his section
on the implicit association test -- a psychological tool that determines your
unconscious, "automatic" preferences for certain kinds of people by
measuring how long it takes you to assign words and faces to categories -- is
the best part of the book. You can take the IAT here, but be careful. The unconscious
is a mysterious thing, and don't be surprised if your test shows you to have
an automatic preference for white people over black people, or for thin people
over fat people, or for young people over old people. I grew up in apartheid
South Africa and consider myself, as most people do, exceedingly egalitarian
in how I treat people, but, I'm ashamed to say, my test showed an automatic
preference for whites over blacks. Gladwell, who is half-black, found a similar
preference when he took the test. Indeed, he notes, of the 50,000 African-Americans
who've taken the race IAT, half show an automatic preference for whites.
This doesn't mean that Gladwell (or others, like me, who show a preference
for whites) is racist. It just means that when he meets a black person, his
brain makes a snap judgment; it forms an instant opinion, and the opinion it
forms is lower than the opinion his brain forms of white people. And these instant
opinions do affect the way we interact with people, Gladwell writes. If your
unconscious has an automatic preference for white people and a black person
comes to you for a job interview, "chances are you'll lean forward a little
less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less
expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a
lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a
You'll do this without even knowing you're doing it, Gladwell says. And the
person you're interviewing will come to a snap judgment about the way you're
acting, and so he or she will act less confident and come off as unfriendly.
And then your unconscious will pick up on the person's lack of confidence and
come to the conclusion that he or she is not right for the job. "What this
unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview
hopelessly off course."
But here's the really compelling part, the thing you'll call your friends about:
Our first impressions, our unconscious preferences, are not stuck in stone.
Many Americans show a preference for whites over blacks because our role models,
the people we see around us, are white. But if you take some measures to expose
yourself to minorities on a regular basis "and become comfortable with
the best of their culture," Gladwell writes, your unconscious preferences
will change. It's true that this sounds, at first, pretty naive: If you just
accept the virtues of multiculturalism the world will become a better place,
Koom Ba Yah. But Gladwell's argument is, he says, supported by research. You
can take the IAT dozens of times and never change your score, but it turns out
that if you look at articles and pictures about black leaders like Nelson Mandela
and Martin Luther King Jr. just before you take the test, you'll get a different
score. Your unconscious synthesizes the new information and, on the basis of
just this little bit, comes up with a new opinion of African-Americans relative
Still, it's hard to know what to do with this news about how our unconscious
works. As someone who has been tagged as having a preference for whites, I suppose
I'd like to do as Gladwell says and fraternize with greater numbers of minorities
so that when I want to "meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority,"
I'm not "betrayed by [my] hesitation and discomfort." The thing is,
though, I don't think I am often hesitant and uncomfortable around blacks; as
far as I'm concerned, I think I behave normally around them. Gladwell's book
makes a good case that I may be wrong and that I may be unconsciously displaying
my unconscious preferences to the people I meet. But the peculiarities of his
method -- that agreeable, undemanding prose style -- don't help to convince
me that the situation's especially grave, certainly not grave enough to greatly
alter how I live my life, not to mention to how we structure our society. In
the end I'm moved to do not very much about the IAT other than just talk about
it -- about how interesting it is, about how curious it reveals us to be --
and leave it at that.
If you're looking for one, this is the main flaw in Gladwell's work: He sees
great meaning in the connections between many bodies of research, and he claims
nothing less than that the meaning he has extracted could possibly change life
as we know it. But in the end he's not very specific about how such changes
will occur, or about how we should proceed in implementing the things he shows
us. There are likely to be many readers who'll feel empty by the end, who will
question whether the entire theory actually means anything or whether, instead,
they've just been treated to a tour of Gladwell's really fabulous cabinet of
strange wonders, and that all there is to do about it is discuss what they saw.
This is the hollow feeling one gets, certainly, from two of the most nominally
serious parts of Blink -- its examination of wartime combat and of police
work through the lens of rapid cognition. Gladwell tells us that it's better
to fight battles spontaneously -- as Paul Van Riper, a legendary Marine commander,
advocates -- rather than in a carefully orchestrated manner, as the U.S. military
has done of late. And in a remarkable chapter, he probes the second-by-second
tragic drama of the Amadou Diallo police shooting and concludes that the officers
who killed Diallo succumbed to a failure of rapid cognition, a breakdown of
their brains' ability to "read" Diallo's mind and infer his intentions.
(Diallo was reaching for a wallet in his pocket, but the officers thought he
had a gun and they unloaded their weapons into him, shooting 41 bullets.)
These sections provide intriguing narratives, and they do give us some basic
outlines for how we might improve the military and police work. "Truly
successful decision making," Gladwell writes, "relies on a balance
between deliberate and instinctive thinking," and we could build a better
military, he argues, if we created "an environment where rapid cognition"
and spontaneity were possible. This is a rather vague proposal; Gladwell doesn't
address the difficulties of integrating spontaneity into a rigid structure like
the military, nor any ethical or political objections we may have to letting
subordinates act on their own. In the section on Diallo, meanwhile, Gladwell
suggests formally training police officers to deal with the sort of intense,
acute stress that the cops faced the night they approached Diallo. "Mind
reading" -- a cop's capacity to guess whether the man they're after has
a gun or a wallet in his pocket -- "is an ability that improves with practice,"
Gladwell says. But would such practice have benefited the cops in the Diallo
case? Could that shooting have been avoided if the police were trained as better
mind readers? All that Gladwell has on this question is his own speculation;
no experts support that view. And that's really all he can have, for there's
no real evidence that such training would have saved Diallo's life.
But as I said above, to charge Gladwell with uselessness is to miss his intentions;
clearly he doesn't mean to be useful, only interesting, and there he succeeds.
Still, some folks will find much utility to Blink -- business people.
Gladwell's fascinating chapter on how the complexities of rapid cognition interfere
with marketers' ability to determine what we actually think about their products
must, I imagine, be a hot item among CEOs at the moment. None of them would
want to make the mistake Coke did two decades ago when it used the results of
blind taste tests between its cola and Pepsi to decide that Americans didn't
like Coke, and that it should develop a new (and ultimately failed) formula
for its drink. But the truth, Gladwell points out, was that Americans didn't
like Coke only when they sipped it blind -- and that made all difference. It
turns out that when you see Coke poured out of the Coca-Cola can, and you drink
a whole can rather than a sip, Coke tastes better. If the Coca-Cola Co. had
only understood the mysteries of rapid cognition, it could have saved itself
a great deal of money.
Perhaps this is what, in the end, will come of Blink -- Gladwell will
save big companies from making stupid mistakes. Certainly The Tipping Point
has given a great many firms insight into how to market to us, and if they're
more successful now because of Gladwell, is there really anything so bad about
One request, though, corporate America: Don't start using "thin-slicing"
in your press releases.