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Book Review: "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

by Malcolm Gladwell

This is Malcolm Gladwell‘s second book after “The Tipping Point.”  In The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes about how sometimes things considered little and insignificant can unexpectedly cause big changes. Blink is about something very different; it is about how much information processing is done by our mind at a subconscious level, and how it can give us incredible answers in the blink of an eye.

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Gladwell explains how we are quite unaware of the powers of our subconscious mind that works like a supercomputer behind the scenes. Every time we are faced with a challenge or a predicament, we try to use our conscious mind and think. For many day-to-day problems, we have  access to enough information and intelligence in that part of our mind and we solve them. But very often, we come across situations for which we can’t find answers in our conscious mind. Yet, we often act quickly in a crisis and avert a disaster by doing precisely the appropriate thing; Gladwell attributes this to our “adaptive unconscious” that processes an enormous amout of information in a flash and guides us to the correct action.

The books starts with a story about a museum that acquired a “rare piece of art” — a statue — from an individual after appointing a team to study it and verify its authenticity for over a year. Soon after, several art experts visiting the museum instinctively react with shock and repulsion. By taking just one look at it, they sense something wrong, something out of place. As it turns out, the museum does further investigation which confirms that the statue is indeed a fake. How did visiting art experts sense that the statue was not genuine within seconds of looking at it, while another team of experts concluded otherwise after a year-long study? Gladwell’s argument is that the experts who just looked at it for a moment had their adaptive unconscious working in their favor, while the team that studied it for long had reams and reams of documentation — too much information — that clouded their judgement. The visiting art experts did what Gladwell calls “thin slicing” — their minds focused on some critical aspects of the visual data when they looked at the statue, and fitered out the irrelevant.

Another interesting experiment that Gladwell describes illustrates a similar effect on reasoning. A group of young students are given about half-a-dozen brands of jam to taste, and asked to rank them. When compared with how a group of jam experts ranked them, the students’ ratings are almost identical. Next, another group of students are given the exact same task, but this time, they are asked to rank the jams, and also describe why they ranked them that way. This time, the students’ ratings are way off from the experts’ ratings. Gladwell’s explanation is that when the first group of students were asked to just taste the jams and rank them, they did it instinctively, but when the second group was asked to justify their rankings, their conscious minds tried to use reasoning for a task that they were not trained for, leading to almost random results. When people are presented with a lot of information and asked to make choices using all the information, they often get overwhelmed and make poor judgements. The author also alludes to another experiment where a store offering six types of jams sells much more jam than a store that offered twenty-four different types; having too many choices confuses people and often makes them postpone making a choice.

The book covers many other situations that show how trying to provide our conscious minds with a lot of information and expecting it to make quick decisions is often futile. Gladwell writes about how doctors in emergency rooms can get overwhelmed by patients who seem to have signs and symptoms of impending heart-attack, and feel compelled to admit them all to be kept under observation. He then explains how one doctor formulated a three-key-symptoms rule that allowed the doctors to focus on three necessary symptoms that would warrant immediate treatment or close observation, and not to be overloaded with other information and symptoms that were only adding to the confusion.

Another aspect of “blink of an eye” judgements that we all make are based on visual clues that our unconscious mind is collecting constantly, and we are not aware of. There is an interesting chapter that delves into facial micro-expressions and how they combine to form various complex expressions. These are visual clues that we all use when interpreting someone’s talk or actions, without being conscious about them. Gladwell cites experts who use  video tapes from court scenes, teachers in classrooms, and couples having a conversation, and their incredible conclusions, based on very specific expressions and other body language.

Gladwell also points out that there are cases when our adaptive unconscious can lead us astray. Our snap judgements can be clouded by our prejudices or by how we are primed at a given point in time, he writes. He explains how the Implicit Association Tests illustrate our bias towards various things in life. “Sensation transference” is another interesting psychological effect discussed in the book.

This book is packed with many examples, anecdotes and interesting observations. I listened to the audio version twice and flipped through the print version a few times before attempting  to write this review.

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