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
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.