BLINK — a book review

blink.jpg I listen to audio books. I download from a service called I pay a certain amount each month and I can download two full-length books on a little digital player and, with a little FM broadcasting thingy which I plug into my car’s 12 volt outlet I can listen to books on my five hour round trips from Abilene to Lubbock where I teach.

I have listened to many fine books (and a few duds) and learned a great deal. I listen to novels which are entertaining or listen to non-fiction (science, history, biographies, etc.) which is educational. Occasionally I hear something absolutely sensational. Two books by Malcolm Gladwell fit into that category.

Some time ago I listened to his book, The Tipping Point. I was blown away. In the last few days I have listened to his book, Blink, and it’s happened again. I recommend both books highly but right now I want to talk about Blink. The subtitle is “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” Once you read this book you will never think about the way we think the same way.

What if I told you there is a psychologist who can predict the longevity of a marriage by spending only a few minutes observing a couple? What if I told you about some folks who, based on a few minutes listening to a physician talk to a patient, can accurately predict whether he will ever be sued? What if I told you about antiquities experts who can tell you whether a piece is a fake with just a glance?

In this book you will learn about the amazing accuracy of snap decisions. You will learn how what we hear and see can subconsciously impact the way we act. You will learn how, in many cases, a little slice of information is better than a lot of data.

The information in this little 254 page book can change the way you do business, the way you sell, the way you interact with other people…your world.

A special note to those who work with organizations (companies, churches, ministries, etc.) get this book and read it.

Malcolm Gladwell. 2005. Blink, Little, Brown and Company, New York, Boston.


Filed under Book Reviews, Love and Marriage, Mind, Preaching/Teaching, Science

3 responses to “BLINK — a book review

  1. That sounds really interesting, and I think it highlights some of the built in, other-90-percent-of-our-brain, that God built in. I heard about a book with a similar idea, I think it was called “The Fear Factor” or something to that effect, and it was about the accuracy of our initial reactions to situations. It’s been so many years I could have butchered that synopsis, but anyway…very interesting stuff. Sounds good.

  2. Tucker

    I too do the same thing in my commute in a tractor across a field. I am very thankful for and the ipod. I listen to many podcasts too. I have read (listened) to these two books. I have one other recommendation for you. “The Biology of Belief” My own personal subtitle, “It isn’t what you think”. I highly recommend it and it may be one you have to listen to, 3 or 4 times to glean everything out of it. You won’t see things the same after this one!


  3. Rob

    I have just read Blink as well. While I really enjoyed the book, though, I’m afraid that it is being misquoted quite regularly. If you really want to dig into the science of decision making as dealt with by Gladwell, I recommend the precursor work that Gladwell mentioned in the early pages (pp 8-11) of Blink, that is, the work by Gerd Gigerenzer published in his book, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart.

    Blink DOES NOT actually promote the idea that snap decisions are the best decisions. To this point, Gladwell spends a great amount of time discussing how snap decisions can go terribly awry. There is, in fact, a large body of evidence that suggests that gut-level decision making (the unfortunately popular way of thinking about snap decisions) alone is fraught with failure and difficulties. A large part of this is due to the internal biases we develop over time, both cognitive and motivational. The representative work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Khaneman (Memorial Nobel Prize winning work) demonstrate this quite effectively. Other recent books, Surprised by Randomness and The Black Swan (each by Nassim Taleb), eloquently discuss the effects of biases on investors. It is very difficult to overcome the effects of these. The worst part is that they are most pernicious when we think they are not present. Gladwell actually reveals this point on pg 233: ” ‘When we make split-second decisions,’ Payne says, ‘We are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.’ ” And on pg 252: “…we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognitions seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.” Overcoming these influencing biases, though, requires a certain degree of informed effort.

    It is true (i.e., confirmed by repeated experiments and mathematics) that a little information is oftentimes much better than more information. For example, there is an idea in decision science called value of information (VOI) that deals, in part, with just this issue. VOI is the rational upper bound one should be willing to pay for additional information on an uncertainty that could cause one to experience regret on making a given decision. Unfortunately, most people do not know how to evaluate VOI, and so they spend more resources trying to get more and more information on issues that wouldn’t have a likelihood of causing them to change their decision anyway. The effect is to get mired into analysis paralysis such that no decisions get made in a timely and economically efficient manner. The point is that more and more information is not the answer, but neither is less and less. Each extreme leads to diminishing returns. Rather, the point behind thin slicing is that there is an optimal amount of information required by the neural structures of expert decision makers that regress data from the environment into inferences on which the decision maker acts (Gerd Gigerenzer describes these efficient heuristics as fast and frugal). This thin slicing is not related to people facing novel situations, but ones in which an “expert” has numerous of hours of experience.

    And this gets us to the point of Blink. Blink is not about gut decision making by lay practitioners or novices. Rather it is about how unbiased experts have developed the ability to make judgments at a near instinctual level. Experts in this case are people who have spent countless hours studying, thinking, and practicing in their particular area of concern. A normal Joe off the street CANNOT use snap judgment to determine the longevity of a marriage after spending only a few minutes with a couple, nor can he determine the veracity of the claims of authenticity of ancient artifacts. “Blink” doesn’t work for just anyone on a whim. It does, however, apply to people who spend obsessive amounts of time immersing themselves in a field of concern, who, in crucial moments when they are called upon to use their expertise, respond instinctively without wasting time using their executive processes of cognition.

    Unfortunately, many people who have reviewed Blink seem to miss this point. The focus instead on the idea that expertise doesn’t matter. Maybe realizing this, Gladwell wrote an Afterword to Blink (2007). He sums it all up on pg 260: “when it comes to fast-moving, high-stakes situations like battlefields (or emergency rooms, or auditions, or late-night shoot outs in the Bronx), …formal conventional analysis doesn’t help that much. Chancellorsville came down to some ineffable, magical decision-making ability that Lee possessed and Hooker did not. What was that magical thing?…It’s the kind of wisdom that someone acquires after a lifetime of learning and watching and doing.”

    But he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, either: “I think the task of figuring out how to combine the best of CONSCIOUS DELIBERATION (emphasis added) and instinctive judgment is one of the greatest challenges of our time.” (pg 269)

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