Tournament of Books 2015

Wednesday, January 19th, 2005


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

Decisions, Decisions

A review by Anna Godbersen

Snap judgments aren't always bad, says Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, his new book about the kind of thinking that is done in the blink of an eye. They can in fact be very useful, while the kind of thinking that takes time and research and teams of experts can be misleading, or worse. Gladwell, author of the much talked about The Tipping Point, illustrates with a few carefully rendered examples: art historians intuitively spot a Greek statue, authenticated by a long, scientific investigation, as a fake; a marriage counselor determines, from a few moments of their conversations, whether couples are headed for divorce; college students characterize strangers, better even than the strangers' friends, from a few minutes in their dorm rooms. (That last one was a campus psychology experiment, naturally.) He then goes about complicating and narrowing his endorsement of "Thin Slicing," "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience." Prejudice, of course, can throw our first responses. Warren Harding is generally thought of as one of the worst U.S. presidents, for instance, and it seems he got himself that dubious honor by being tall and always giving a dignified first impression; the Amadou Diallo shooting (in which four white policemen killed a five-foot-six, 150-pound black man, when they mistook his wallet for a gun) provides a more harrowing example of how prejudice can cause instincts to go terribly wrong. Still, with training and experience, Gladwell believes our rapid decision making abilities can do far more good than harm.

Nearly every argument in Gladwell's book is made by example, and these are invariably topical and interesting, and often lead you to picture some societal niche that you hadn't thought of before. (Speed dating, say, or the much more financed world of Pentagon war games.) The anecdotal method can be less than satisfying, however, and by the end of Blink I found myself longing for a book more drawn out and philosophical, the kind of thing you couldn't digest in a single flight.

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