After his bestselling book brought the phrase "tipping point" into popular usage, which is that moment when an idea, product or concept suddenly catches fire with the population at large, Malcolm Gladwell now gives us two more phrases that are likely to become equally well-known: "blink" and "thin-slicing."
We "blink" when we think without thinking. We do that by "thin-slicing," using limited information to come to our conclusion. What's interesting is that in our age of information overload, according to Gladwell, we often make better decisions with snap judgments than we do with volumes of analysis.
The book opens with what reads like a heart-racing detective story about the discovery of a statue that initially fooled one group of art experts for being genuine and was later shown to be a fake by another group. The first group had exhaustively studied and analyzed the statue. Members of the second took one look --- "blinked" --- and declared it suspect and ultimately a forgery. And they were right. Why? How did they know? Why was the first group so wrong? Are there dangers in overanalyzing? Are we always right when we blink? Can we be wrong, even dead wrong? What is the science behind blinking? What can we learn from this phenomenon?
Gladwell addresses these questions and gives a wide range of examples of blinking from the worlds of gambling, speed-dating, tennis, war games, the movies, malpractice suits, popular music, and predicting divorce. Interspersed are accounts of scientific studies that partially, but never completely, explain the largely unconscious phenomenon that we have all experienced at one time or another in our lives. Nevertheless, the hypotheses, the scientific experiments, and the examples are very interesting.
A researcher tells the story of a firefighter in Cleveland who answered a routine call with his men. It was in the back of a one-and-a-half story house in a residential neighborhood in the kitchen. The firefighters broke down the door, laid down their hose, and began dousing the fire with water. It should have abated, but it didn't. As the fire lieutenant recalls, he suddenly thought to himself, "There's something wrong here," and he immediately ordered his men out. Moments after they fled, the floor they had been standing on collapsed. The fire had been in the basement, not the kitchen as it appeared. When asked how he knew to get out, the fireman thought it was ESP, which of course it wasn't. What is interesting to Gladwell is that the fireman could not immediately explain how he knew to get out. From what Gladwell calls "the locked box" in our brains, our fireman just "blinked" and made the right decision. In fact, if the fireman had deliberated on the facts he was seeing, he would have likely lost his life and the lives of his men.
It took well over two hours of questioning for the fire lieutenant to piece together how he knew to get out. (First, the fire didn't respond as it was supposed to; second, the fire was abnormally hot; third, it was quiet when it should have been noisier given the heat.)
One take-away from the book is that how we blink is a function of our experiences, training, and knowledge. For example, prejudice is so unconsciously woven into our society that, despite our best intentions, at an unconscious level it can lead to really bad blinks. This is partly why tall people are frequently seen as natural leaders when there is no basis in reality for that belief. And, in the case of the Amadou Diallo killing in 1999, it is why four policemen incorrectly thin-sliced a situation and wound up killing an innocent man by mistake.
Gladwell is obviously fascinated by the phenomenon of blinking. Properly understood --- and properly prepared for --- it is a valid way to make decisions. Gladwell says, "A world where snap judgments and thin-slicing is taken seriously is a better place." I know some people who might object to that viewpoint, particularly when it comes to decision-making in foreign policy, but if you want an entertaining read, fast-paced, rich in entertaining anecdotes and some unusual scientific research, then BLINK is worth picking up.
Reviewed by Anne Miller on January 7, 2011