Leadership Book Review: Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

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From predicting failed marriages from an eavesdropped conversation to dissecting the Oreo cookie into 90 different attributes, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005) is a question of psychological behavior of when to trust instinct and when to consciously think things through. Gladwell, who also wrote the Tipping Point (2000) and the New York Times bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), writes Blink in a popular science format based in psychological and behavioral research to educate and appeal to a general audience on the strengths and weaknesses of the adaptive unconscious.

The fast-paced culture of the American lifestyle lauds rational, thought-out ideas and decisions, relegating snap judgment to trivial, time saving decisions, like whether to have a baloney or cheese sandwich for lunch. Rather than think through every option, Gladwell suggests spontaneous snap judgment decisions can be just as good – if not better than – carefully processed sequences of thought. Throughout the book, Gladwell bases his psychological behavioral theory on something he calls “thin-slicing,” which refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience (23). The first half of Blink aims to define and develop the idea of thin-slicing with examples based on scientific research and everyday people, while the remaining half suggests factors that may limit, or completely undermine, the intuitive process, and how to work around them to optimize your best “internal computer” of subconscious intuition.

When we thin-slice, we edit our surroundings unconsciously by recognizing patterns and making snap judgments. The book’s introduction uses an example of what Gladwell means by thin-slicing through a rare ancient Greek statue, called a kouros, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Even though the statue was said to be legitimate by both scientific tests and eagle-eyed experts who combed over each granular layer. Yet, the professionals who viewed the kouros for the first time simply by eyeballing concluded something was just not right based on first impression – without consciously knowing why.

Thomas Hoving, the former museum executive and consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, immediately zeroed in on how “fresh” the statue seemed to look, while the notable Italian Art Historian Federico Zeri found himself looking at the sculpture’s peculiar fingernails. In the end, factual evidence of letters and bank accounts proved the kouros to be a falsity of a smorgasbord of artistic styles across different time periods constructed by a contemporary Roman forger.

In essence, the art experts’ hunches about a complex issue were accurately made in a “blink,” even though they could not reasonably explain why they felt the way they did after simply glancing at the statue without any further examination.  Gladwell makes the assumptions that the Getty received the sculpture without immediate suspicion based on seemingly irrefutable scientific data and, simply, that it just “desperately wanted the statue to be real” (14). Throughout the rest of the book, Gladwell makes these assumptions and inferences as an attempt to describe the abstract mechanisms of our decisions.

Gladwell surmises that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately,” whether it be an everyday occurrence or a life-altering situation (14). Marriage psychologist John Gottman can predict the fate of a marriage by analyzing second-by-second a 15-minute conversation, neither scripted nor prompted, between a husband and wife. The couple is likelier to split if she rolls her eyes in disgust than if she does not; however, Gottman thin slices this more by detecting the emotion of contempt as the marker of a true deal breaker. On a more mundane level, Gladwell uses the example of someone’s bedroom, and how you can surmise its inhabitant’s personality by a brief glance around at its contents.

It’s easy to follow Gladwell’s examples up to this point, possibly based on your own relatable experiences. Delving deeper, he makes the point that accurate snap decisions and thin slicing are not just random acts of cognition, but preconditioned abilities that have been practiced and rehearsed in the mind:

“How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of rules and rehearsal” (114).

Basically, our minds are grounded in real understanding of the subject, so any other noise surrounding the thought is shallow and easily disrupted (184). Gladwell claims that when we are good at something we truly care about, whether that be work or a hobby, past experience and effort invested into that interest will manifest, fundamentally changing the nature of our first impressions.

It’s thin slicing of information that enables snap decisions. Our minds can collate all the history of our experience and thin slice it into the key information we need to make a decision. For instance, expert food tasters are primed with a specific vocabulary to evaluate food along six dimensions of appearance, where each is then weighed on an intricate 15-point scale. According to two food tasters Gladwell interviewed, the simple black-and-white Oreo cookie can be broken down into 90 attributes of appearance, flavor and texture. Since almost any supermarket product can be evaluated using this system, the food experts were able to make an unconscious “blink” decision based on a history of honed taste vocabulary.

However, if you consciously overthink your gut feeling, it may lead you to reassess and change your previous decision. In the act of tearing apart, the concept loses its meaning when too much information can hinder the ability to thin slice. For instance, when buying jam, consumers are more likely to make the snap purchase if there were only six jams to choose from rather than 20. The more choices they were given, the more difficult the decision and the consumer suffered from analysis paralysis.

Gladwell goes even deeper by looking at how multiple elements affect our judgment, including culture, experience and the situational data before us during the decision-making moment. He illustrates this disrupting aspect of high-speed decision making in an extreme example by citing the 41-bullet shooting of the immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York City policemen in 1999. Blink reaches to the extent to compare this mental state to temporary autism.

The secret is determining which information to discard and which to keep. There are things that can be done to redirect our mind along lines more conducive to accurate thin slicing: we can alter our unconscious biases; we can change products’ packaging to something that tests better with consumers; we can analyze numerical evidence; and we can evade our biases by blind screening, hiding the evidence that will lead us to incorrect conclusions. This honing of the decision-making process in instances of rapid judgment can be very useful for any type of leader. The catch being, he/she must firstly have a strong knowledge base of whatever he or she is leading and to be aware of any personal biases.

This doesn’t mean that Gladwell is without his critics. According to New York Magazine, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has said, “What Gladwell is marketing is nothing but marketing—the marketer’s view of the world. But that view of the world is, I’m afraid, idiotic.” The judge and legal scholar Richard Posner, in a scathing review of Blink for TNR, complained that it was “written like a book intended for people who do not read books.” Meanwhile, Carlin Romano, the influential literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, used his review of Blink gave Gladwell an ultimatum: “Gladwell, one fears, has come to his own tipping point, or—to be fuddy-duddy—fork in the road. This way, guru. That way, serious writer.”

Nevertheless, the book’s ultimate thought is that the behavior of the adaptive unconscious can be anticipated if it is better understood, and therefore modified. “Every moment – every blink – is comprised of a series of discrete moving parts,” Gladwell writes, “and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction” (241).

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