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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, February 19th, 2005


 

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

A review by Chris Bolton

Blink is a fluke. That is, my reading Blink is a fluke. Part of my job at Powells.com involves adding review and excerpts to the product pages for the books on our website. After I added text to the Blink page, I was quickly proofreading the excerpt and suddenly found myself sucked in. Prior to that day, I hadn't even heard of Blink -- and until the moment I started to peruse the excerpt, I had no interest in reading it. Before I knew it, I was on my lunch break and the excerpt was finished and I needed to get the book and keep reading.

I didn't realize it at the time -- I hadn't gotten that far yet -- but I'd just illustrated Malcolm Gladwell's thesis. His book is an exploration of "thin-slicing" -- in Gladwell's words, "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience." In this case, I'd determined at a glance that Blink was a dry, uninteresting treatise full of scientific jargon and written in a style as passionate and involving as a high school biology textbook. (Why I made this decision could be based on countless factors, many unconscious, up to and including the design of the book cover.) In doing so, I demonstrated one of the dangers of thin-slicing: sometimes the first impression is based on faulty or erroneous judgment and ends up being completely wrong.

This is a book you can't stop reading. It's also a book you can't stop talking about. The night I started it, I went to a bar with two friends and found myself recounting half the anecdotes I'd read. The next day I told a co-worker friend about it and we were still discussing the ideas at lunch the day after that.

The secret of Gladwell's success is two-fold: firstly, he employs a breezy, almost conversational writing style (Gladwell may be one of very few science writers (even pop-science writers) to unashamedly use the words "I think" when expressing what is, after all, just an opinion); then, he utilizes a variety of anecdotes on subjects that are so common and so familiar you can't stop devouring one after the other. No obscure scientific data here.

One of Gladwell's case studies involves the infamous launch of New Coke -- specifically, the flaws in the Pepsi Challenge that allowed the executives at Coke to mistakenly believe Pepsi would overtake their product as the number one soft drink in the world. While it's true that Pepsi was roundly trouncing Coke in nationwide taste tests (even those conducted by the Coca-Cola company), Gladwell notes that the Pepsi Challenge was based on faulty logic:

Tasters don't drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would.

Perhaps the difference between sipping a cup of cola and drinking the entire can doesn't thrill you. You aren't alone. Some critics have complained that Blink isn't exactly revolutionary in its revelations ("Too much of Blink reads like a longish string of features from the New Yorker," sniffed the San Francisco Chronicle). In an interview with Powells.com, Gladwell himself mentioned a psychology student who told him that her class was divided in half over whether Gladwell's work makes an original contribution to psychology or if he's just a "popularizer of other people's ideas."

These are fair charges, I suppose, but I think they overlook the thrust of Blink's appeal. The Pepsi Challenge story is a fun, interesting anecdote for those attuned to the pulse of pop culture, but anyone who doesn't remember the marketing disaster that was New Coke (perhaps someone whose family didn't react in horror and outrage at the time the product came out, as mine did) or doesn't feel it made a lasting or important impact on society as a whole is likely to consider it reasonably insignificant. On the surface, at least, Gladwell's thesis isn't nearly as far-reaching as, for instance, Jared Diamond's Collapse, which has a big theme that covers huge epochs of time and whole civilizations. From a perspective of historical significance, the catastrophe of New Coke can't remotely compare to the demise of Greenland or the Anasazi Indians.

Or can it? Gladwell uses small, intriguing case studies with a pop cultural bent (at various points he also references the careers of Tom Hanks, the design of the Aero chair, and an up-and-coming musician named Kenna) to illustrate universal truths about our psychology. (Not that the entire book is a fun romp; Gladwell also delves into the darker aspects of thin-slicing using such examples as the brutal police shooting of Amadou Diallo.) As Gladwell himself notes, responding to the aforementioned psychology student:

Some of these studies, in their virgin form, are pretty dry. You have to be quite creative to find ways to make them come alive. If that's what my talent is, I'm the happiest man in the world.

Gladwell should be very happy, indeed. Blink is riveting and entertaining, not to mention quite brief, which makes for a very fast read -- but it stays with you. Gladwell discusses John Gottman, a University of Washington professor who can thin-slice a married couple's chances of staying together by watching a single, fifteen-minute video of their interaction. Gottman's observations and methodology provide a fascinating insight into the dynamics of a relationship, and since reading that section I've been (consciously or unconsciously) measuring the relationship of every couple I know against it.

Few books can change your worldview or cause you to rethink your every action and response to the world around you. Not only can Blink boast such a claim, but it does so in a brisk, engrossing, unforgettable fashion. And it makes for great conversation at parties.


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