Knee-jerk opinion has a bad rap. Context is overrated. Not everything we need to know is imparted in kindergarten, college or the gnarliest Buddhist retreat of all time. Rather, in a few breathless seconds, we process information and make decisions with far greater proficiency than anyone gives us credit for. Or, so goes the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating, if not entirely convincing, new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Like The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell’s best-selling debut, Blink is about why it’s worth sweating the small stuff—in this case, our instant, unconscious thoughts. The Getty Museum’s acquisition in the 1980s of a rare kouros statue is held up as the apotheosis of “blink think.” Stereomicroscopes and technical-expertise geologists concluded the statue was the real deal, but without much beyond a hard stare, a host of diverse sculpture experts knew it was a fraud within seconds. Because of this split, the controversy was kept alive for years. Ultimately, lawyers for the Getty proved the statue was a forgery through flaws in its documentation.
So, how can an assortment of art experts instantly see something trained scientists can’t? This question is what Gladwell is so fascinated by and what Blink is ultimately about. The answer is “thin slicing”: the unconscious mind’s ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based on only limited patterns of experience. It’s part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the “adaptive unconscious,” or the CPU-like part of our brains responsible for quick decisions.
Gladwell is at his best in illustrating the myriad contexts of “blink think” in arts, culture and the military. One memorable example is the work of psychologist John Gottman, whose “love lab” has been studying married couples’ conversations for nearly two decades. With a mere 15 minutes of videotaped discussion, Gottman can predict whether a couple will be married 15 years down the road. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent.
Quick decisions, of course, can go awry, such as when musicians, designers and artists introduce work that doesn’t jive with preconceived notions of what art should be. Although Gladwell hails the study of the adaptive unconscious as innovative, one of its discoveries is that thin slicing tends to cut out innovations because of their inherent unfamiliarity.
As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell mines culture for all things counterintuitive. He’s explored the disconnect between the illusion of safety offered by SUVs and their tendency to flip over. More recently, he’s contested the notion that plagiarism is always and everywhere a form of intellectual theft. In Blink, he writes about an even broader contradiction, in his trademark voice that distills complex situations and ideas into a clear conversation.
Gladwell succeeds at seamlessly uniting a ton of seemingly random phenomena under the banner of one idea. However, he leaves far too many questions unanswered. For instance, if a marriage can be assessed in 15 minutes, what does it mean for husbands and wives interested in staying together? How do we know when to trust our adaptive unconscious rather than make decisions via the more established cerebral scenic route?
At times, Blink feels less like an investigation than a subtle form of boosterism. Stumping for quick decision-making, with all its flaws, feels like advocating against child-safety locks on firearms. But because it’s not straight up psychology, sociology or phenomenology, Blink remains a refreshing read even if deciding whether its ideas are “good” is no snap decision.