Sunday, April 15, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Little, Brown and Company of New York and Boston publishes a book entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell in January 2005.  Gladwell discusses the phenomena of first impressions and snap judgments people make that, although indemonstrable at first, turn out to be true after all.  He refers to various studies from scientific and psychological research that have looked into the process of “thin-slicing,” or the ability to predict quickly and effectively the outcome of a situation with very little information.  This ability to thin-slice an object or a performance not only happens with experts, but also with normal people.  The ability can also be learned and perfected.

I came upon this book by accident two days ago.  I was walking my dog around the baseball and softball fields of the high school up the street.  My dog and I were coming around the baseball field until my eye caught sight of an object near the bleachers.  The pages were slightly wet and distended, covered with grit, and the covers were warping from the wrinkling, gnarling paper inside.   I could tell that it was a book that somebody had forgotten or abandoned, because it had pieces of ripped Post-it notes on some pages.  Did a high school student forget to pick it up after a recent baseball game?  Was it a mother that wanted something to read before the game started?  Not wanting to leave this lonely book at the mercy of the elements and lawn sprinklers, I picked it up and took it home with my dog.

Yesterday, I started reading it and got about halfway through it.  I finished it today.  It was a quick read; the reading level is quite easy and the flow is fluid.  However, having read this, I do not think I would have bought this book if I had seen this on a store shelf.  Although informative and intriguing, I sense an unbalanced treatment of the subject at hand.  The author does not take every detail into consideration or other circumstances that may refute thin-slicing.  I believe in intuition and insight, but he only uses scientific sources to explain the phenomena.  How would religion account for this?  How would academia explain it?  How do other cultures incorporate this?  In short, the book feels incomplete, feels rushed, even out-of-date if my thin-slicing hunch is correct.

For example, Gladwell describes a new area of psychology called the adaptive unconscious.  He states, “The adaptive unconscious is not to be confused with the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud, which was a dark and murky place filled with desires and memories and fantasies that were too disturbing for us to think about consciously” (11).  Instead, the adaptive unconscious is “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings” (11).  The explanation sounds fine until he talks about the Implicit Association Test and his descriptions of the unconscious as a locked room (77, 183).  He dissociates the current field of psychoanalysis with its controversial and foundational father.  The unconscious is the unconscious, no matter how you slice it.  So when Gladwell compares the training of taste-testing experts to that of psychoanalysts on page 183, he implicitly gives homage to Freud and his contribution despite the dissociation he makes on page 11.  So, do snap judgments relate to Freud or not?

Blink does have a chapter entitled “Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading,” a fascinating case study about Amadou Diallo’s tragic death at the hands of the New York Police Department.  (This must have been the reason for getting the book to press in the first place.)  It is a case of thin-slicing gone wrong.  He propounds a case of “temporary autism” on the part of the police officers by referring to an inability of detecting micro expressions and the lack of “white space” they have in the situation on Wheeler Avenue (221, 230).  It eerily has similarities to the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case in Florida.

The book is okay.  It starts out praising the idea of quick intuition and decision making, but ends with a cautious, thoughtful look at taking time to interpret those unconscious reactions.  With more time and research, Gladwell might have written a better book stating how real people can take advantage of this intuition.  I recommend reading this book when there is just no other book on the library shelf that interests you.  As for the book I found, I will return it to the high school’s lost and found.



  1. I would say the best book of popular science you can find on the implicit systems of the brain is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman's psychological research won him a Nobel Prize in economics, even though he isn't an economist. The book is thorough but clear, and will take you a lot further than Galdwell's light but entertaining works.

  2. Hello there :) I just thought I would stop by and say hello and thank you for your comment on my blog. I love to find local people who blog.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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