Blink | Notes & Review

Posted on December 27, 2008


Malcolm Gladwell. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books, 2005. (296 pages)


“Thin-Slicing,” being “Fast and Frugal,” refers to the “ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” (23) In this opening chapter, Gladwell illustrates how this kind of “snap decision” making happens in the Antiquities Market, Speed Dating, friendships, malpractice suits against doctors, and Hollywood. It even aids in understanding married couples (see The Mathematics of Divorce)

Chapter two begins to introduce us to the psychology of this behavior, and the tests and fascinating exercises that psychologists use to understand that behavior. The first is the “scrambled-sentence test.” (52) Try it. Simply make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set:

01 him was worried she always
02 from are Florida oranges temperature
03 ball the throw toss silently
04 shoes give replace old the
05 he observes occasionally people watches
06 be will sweat lonely they
07 sky the seamless gray is
08 should now withdraw forgetful we
09 us bingo sing play let
10 sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

According to the results, after taking this test, you would have walked slower out than you did in. Though you thought this was a simple language test, it was actually making the big computer in your brain — your adaptive unconscious — think about the state of being old. This “locked door” of the unconscious affects our decision making more than we are aware.

Chapter three introduces us to the dark side of rapid cognition and the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Be sure to read their disclaimer first, then take one of the tests here to discover more about your personal subconscious biases. [Like Gladwell, I’m a bit creeped out by my results too.] What this test tells us, and what all this means is that our attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels. The first is the conscious attitudes; what we choose to believe. The second is the unconscious — the immediate, automatic associations that emerge before we have time to think (84-85). In other words, our giant computer of a brain is unconsciously crunching all the data from experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, books we’ve read, movies we’ve seen, etc. AND, “the IAT is more than just an abstract measure of attitudes. It’s also a powerful predictor of how we act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.” (85) And here is where we can get to some very simple, yet profound “to do’s” from what we’re learning in Blink.

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions — we can alter the way we thin-slice — by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions…It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort. Taking rapid cognition seriously — acknowledging the incredible power, for good and ill, that first impressions play in our lives — requires that we take active steps to manage and control those impressions.” (97-98)

Chapter four tells of the fascinating US war-game, the Millennium Challenge, which was “a battle between two perfectly opposed military philosophies.” (108) Drawing on lessons from improv comedy we discover that the ability to make “very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment is not random and chaotic, but is really “an art form governed by a series of rules.” (113) In other words, “spontaneity isn’t random…How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.” (114) Through an illustration of a firefighter’s intuition, or an ability of an ER worker to make a quick heart diagnosis, sometimes over analysis is paralyzing. “In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning.” (125) Less is really more. [While reading this segment, I was reminded of Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice.]

There are two important lessons here. The first is that truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking…The second lesson is that in good decision making, frugality matters. (141)

Chapter five elaborates on how “everyone wants to capture the mysterious and powerful reactions we have to the world around us.” (154) Examples used are New Coke’s disaster, Christian’s Brother’s brandy bottle makeover, Herman Miller’s Aeron chair’s ugliness, and CBS’s All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Shows‘ poor ratings. Akin to McLuhan’s “medium is the message” observation, “most of us don’t make a distinction — on an unconscious level — between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined.” (160) However, we can overcome this “shallow” way of interacting with the world through “expertise.” “Whenever we have something that we are good at — something we care about — that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions.” (184) One way of doing that is called a “triangle test” in which instead of choosing one product over another (two options), you have to identify which product is distinct from the other two (three options).

Chapter six takes us into the world of mind-reading. “Perhaps the most common — and the most important — forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and the impressions we form of other people.” (194) It’s essentially the “practice of inferring the motivations and intentions of others.” (195) Gladwell spends considerable time on the “taxonomy of facial expressions” (201) which catalogs the thousands of physical expressions that are made by our faces, both consciously and unconsciously. The “combinations — and the rules for reading and interpreting them…” are assembled into “the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS.” (204) Most fascinating is that what research shows is that though we think of “the face as the residue of emotion,” the process actually works in “the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start on the face…It is an equal partner in the emotional process.” (208) This reminded me of the term “praxis” which describes the phenomenon of our actions influencing our convictions in similar ways that convictions influence our actions. [Here’s a article on Ekman’s work, as well as the website] Through the avenues of police work evaluating a suspect during a chase, Dreamworks and Pixar creating an animation film, an assassination attempt on President Reagan, and autistic people relating to people as objects, Gladwell illustrates how mind-reading works (and doesn’t), and what we can do about it. Fundamentally, we need more “white-space,” which is essentially more “time” to evaluate.

“When we make a split-second decision,” Payne says, “we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.” (233)

Towards the end of this chapter is one of the most important paragraphs of the book, in my opinion. Just before, Gladwell recounts the testimony of an officer chasing a 14-year-old gang member, and instead of shooting at the kid when he sees a gun brandished, he waits, because he “mind-reads” his face, sees “frightened,” and thinks to himself, “I would just give him just a little bit more time that he might give me an option to not shoot him…something in my mind just told me I didn’t have to shoot yet.” (240) Gladwell then writes this:

This is the gift of training and expertise — the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. To a novice, that incident would have gone by in a blur. But it wasn’t a blur at all. Every moment — every blink — is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.”

In conclusion, Gladwell implores us to “take charge of the first two seconds” and to “[see things] for who [they truly are.]” (254)

Afterword quotes:

“Being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous course of education and experience.” (259)

“What is that magical thing? … It’s judgment. And what Blink is — what all the stories and studies and arguments add up to — is an attempt to understand this magical and mysterious thing called judgment.” (260)

“From experience, we gain a powerful gift, the ability to act instinctively, in the moment. But — and this is one of the lessons I tried very hard to impart in Blink — it is easy to disrupt this gift.” (262)

“This is the second lesson of Blink: understanding the true nature of instinctive decision making requires us to be forgiving of those people trapped in circumstances where good judgment is imperiled.” (262-3)

“As I’ve talked to people about Blink over the past few years, I’ve been amazed at how often this point has come up. In fact, I would venture to say that no argument in the book has resonated more with readers than this one. We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information We have come to confuse information with understanding.” (264)

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” (265)

“One of the questions that I’ve been asked over and over again since Blink came out is, When should we trust our instincts, and when should we consciously think things through? Well, here is a partial answer. On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated — when we have to juggle many different variables — then our unconscious thought processes may be superior.” (267)

“This is the real lesson of Blink: It is not enough simply to explore the hidden recesses of our unconscious. Once we know about how the mind works — and about the strengths and weaknesses of human judgment — it is our responsibility to act.” (276)


As Mark Coatney of the Chicago Tribune commented, Blink is ” a really fun ride.” Not only did I enjoy reading about human cognition, behavior, and judgment, I was thankful that Gladwell exhorts us to use this knowledge and understanding to do something about it; to make the world a better place because of what we’ve come to understand.

However, I was struck, once again, as with most concepts, ideas, and perspectives that I run into, that this is another paradox and tension between two very different kinds of thinking in the world. Though he does not use the word “intuition” for reasons of its non-rational cognates, I think it may be apropos, and is one side of the cognition coin. The other side is deep study and education, systematic and experiential. It is true that both need each other, though both are at odds with each other on fundamental levels.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to grasp both well, and to avoid chauvinistic attitudes towards one over the other. Again, human pride, even if in a new perspective, becomes the enemy here in all forms of cognition. And understanding what we really “know” about the world around us ought to be met with a stronger sense of humility; an ethic known as “an epistemology of love.”

Thanks, Gladwell, for the “fun ride.” Now it’s off to Tipping Point, and then Outliers.