Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Have you ever made a decision based on a ‘gut-feeling’? A ‘hunch’? An inexplicable sense of what you ought to do? OK, those are largely rhetorical questions. Its more than likely you have had moments when you ‘just know’ what to do (or not do) even though you could not necessarily put our finger on why and, as a result, could not aptly  articulate and defend your position.

blinkWell, blink is about those decisions and ‘feelings’

It’s a book about intuition (Gladwell doesn’t like to use that word – I think a case can be made for its use); about first-impressions; about instinct; ‘judgment’ or what Gladwell terms, rapid cognition.

Gladwell describes it as an intellectual adventure. I think it’s a really good story – the story of our subconscious. Why it works and how it fails.

Rather than launching into a complex scientific narrative of how intuition works, this book sets out to prove that it does work. That contrary to popular and conventional wisdom which suggests that the quality of a decision is directly proportional to the amount of information considered and time taken in making the decision, the truth is that, sometimes, the less we know, and the more intuitively we make our decisions – the better.

I know. That’s a little bit of an uncomfortable hypothesis. However, Gladwell actually makes a rather compelling case. Using a myriad of examples, which you’ll have to read to discover, he demonstrates that decisions made in the blink of any eye can be just as good, if not better, than elaborately thought out, perfectly sensible, decisions.

There’s a catch though.

Actually, there’s couple of catches.

1.  Being an expert helps you make better ‘blink’ decisions’.

Sounds counter-intuitive, right (in light of Gladwell’s basic premise)? Well, not entirely. Gladwell uses three examples from the spheres of archeology, music, and the military, to show that the more exposure you have in a certain field, the more knowledge you have acquired (over time) on a certain subject matter. Therefore, the more likely you are to make a good or accurate ‘blink’ decision when the need arises – in the heat of the moment. I think I’ve experienced something vaguely resembling this (though I don’t consider myself an expert in anything).

For instance, how I distinguish good writing from ok or sub-standard or simply down-right-‘wrong’ writing. It’s intuitive. There are times when you can’t pin-point exactly what is wrong with a piece of writing, or with someone’s phraseology, or employment of a particular word – you just know that it is wrong. Why? Usually, it’s because you’ve had enough exposure to good writing; correct phraseology; proper parlance. How? Through reading [NB: Even when writers are intentionally using a phrase or word, your understanding what they mean to convey depends upon your sensing that they’ve done something odd (read incorrect) in the first place]. So the more you know about a particular subject (and it appears this needs to be experiential knowledge acquired over a period of time), the better your ‘spur of the moment’ judgment calls will be.

2. Your blink can be all messed up!

This, I think, was the crux of the matter for me. Although Gladwell goes to great lengths to demonstrate how beneficial rapid cognition can be, he concedes that it does have its limitations. That it does in fact fail on occasion (and sometimes in a profoundly epic way) and that it can lead us to make terrible decisions rather than accurate judgments.  I mentioned earlier that Gladwell has a problem with calling Blink a book about intuition. According to him, intuition has more to do with feelings (often unfounded feelings) whereas Blink is a book about reasoning, albeit a very distinct type of thinking. Well, I personally wanted to ask whether such a binary division exists. Whether intuition (feelings-oriented) is not in fact based on associations we have made in our minds, and things we have learned over time (logic-oriented).

In any case the point is that, to me, one of the things that Blink is about is the ways in which our subconscious is shaped and how wonderful it is when it is shaped right and how awry things can go when our subconscious has been misled; when falsehood is a normalized part of our reality.

The thing is; no person is born with innate knowledge of anything. We acquire it: formally or informally. Through our parents, teachers, friends, the music we listen to, the experiences we undergo, the circumstances we live in, the media we are exposed to … Unfortunately, some of the knowledge we acquire is mis-information; false knowledge. But it serves to shape our perceptions – even on a subconscious level. So, as we grow, we learn to make certain associations which could be based on truth or falsehood.

In the book, Gladwell showed that the ability to ‘blink’ well was often hindered by stereotypes. For instance, playing the trombone was once seen as the exclusive preserve of men. This, presumably, was based on very practical considerations. Only men had the lungs, the strength, and the power to handle a trombone! But when screened auditions were held for an orchestra in one instance, a woman was chosen – within seconds of beginning to play. The decision makers were effusive in their praise, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was the best (although they hadn’t seen her yet) and sent other auditionees packing even before some of them had played.

When the screens were lifted, however, the doubt set in.

Why?

The ‘experts’ knew enough about music to make a good ‘snap’ judgment about a person’s musical ability but when the screens lifted that conflicted with the other knowledge they had acquired over time – women can’t play trombones! What a conundrum!

Another serious ‘rapid cognition’ fail often happens with regard to race and crime. The Trayvon martin case is perhaps an example of how our ‘rapid cognition’ can fail. The American Justice system from the police to the courts has a certain conception of blackness – more specifically, perhaps, young black males. This has been molded over time and is the result of historical-political realities. Nonetheless when a police officer or a judge sees a young black male, what often happens is that they will ‘thin-slice’, based on the wrong kind of information — mis-information.

Gladwell argues that we can therefore do without certain kinds of information – the kinds which interfere with an otherwise pure blink. He asks, “what if a judge could preside over a case without seeing the color of the defendant’s skin?” I add: “What if a company could hold interviews without being privy to the gender, height, weight of the interviewees? What if our voting could be more made more ‘blind’ so that all we have to go with is the ideas a candidate espouses, rather than how they look or what tribe they belong to, or their religious affiliation or their gender?” (Yet even then, we would still be influenced by information just about a person’s voice! The best idea, coming from a high-pitched or squeaky or stammering voice, may still be disregarded!)

Gladwell suggests we would see very different judgments and a very different world. I tend to agree.

At the end of the day, this book left me as Gladwell wanted to leave his reader: more serious about the under-currents operating in my sub-conscious. It made me serious about those ‘feelings’ that constitute my ‘intuition’ – not because my intuition is sacred or an absolute standard by which I should make complex decisions but rather because my intuition tells me something about who I am, something about what I know, something about what I believe and something about the society that has shaped me. So it’s important that I am aware of those instincts, that I question them, and that I don’t always listen to them.

As a Christian, the most important thing I garnered is why it is important to sift everything through God’s word and to someday teach my children to do the same; why it is important to strive to see things as God sees them – because we are constantly being bombarded with belief-systems which may be based on falsehood, rather than the Truth. And all these things we assimilate into our sub-conscious – all the associations we come to make – they affect the way we live our lives and the decisions we make and they affect our ‘snap judgments’ – our reactions to people and situations.

So, just as an expert’s experiential knowledge on a subject matter enables better discernment: just as the ear of the musician needs training before it can distinguish good playing from great playing, and they eye of the archeologist needs training in order to decipher a true sculpture from a false one, so we all need training and prolonged exposure to and interaction with the truth if we are to distinguish truth from lies. And indeed, by constant training we can distinguish good from evil, we will make better judgment calls. And someday, when the perfect comes, all our ‘blinks’ will be perfectly reliable – because they are based on the perfect; a perfect relationship with perfect knowledge of the perfect truth.

Until then, though, I would trust my Bible (the guiding of the Holy Spirit) over and above my “blinks” when it comes to decision-making.

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