Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
The Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
AuthorMalcolm Gladwell
PublisherBack Bay Books
ReleasedJanuary 11, 2005
Media TypePrint (hardback and paperback)
Pages320 p. (paperback edition)
ISBNISBN 0-316-17232-4 & ISBN 0-316-01066-9 (paperback edition)
Preceded by The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference

Executive Summary

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 2000’s The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s research in 2005’s 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 mind’s 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 don’t 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 brain’s 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.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 5: Kenna’s 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 participants’ 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 Kenna’s 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 accumulate exponentially.

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 behaviors.