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Blink: A Thin-Slicing Book Review

Caroline Wright's picture

Have you ever seen a person on the streets and immediately had some sort of attraction to them? You don’t know why, you’ve never met them, and you haven’t even made eye contact with them or heard the sound of their voice. But for some reason, they intrigue you. You never chose to become interested in this person; your brain made snap-decisions on its own without your conscious input. Perhaps it is the way that they hold their head. Maybe it’s their walk, or the way that they stepped over that crack in the side-walk. Even if you thought hard about it, the chances that you would be able to figure out exactly why are slim. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, is about this initial, unconscious, mysterious reaction to everyday situations.

Gladwell’s arguments center around an idea he calls “thin-slicing.” Thin-slicing is the concept that our unconscious can take lightning-quick bits of experiences and use preconceived notions about behaviors and situations to interpret them. Our unconscious thin-slices the world around us on a constantly– every person we meet or even already know we thin-slice. In times of panic, our brains rely on those split-second decisions based on what we have unconsciously observed. The reactions that we have from thin-slicing are sometimes called one’s basic instincts: the inkling inside of you that you may or may not understand. This is where Gladwell gets into the idea that even when your unconscious brings these thin-slices to your conscious attention, you probably still won’t know why you feel the way you do about things. The little connections that your unconscious brain makes are behind a set of locked doors. It’s a bit off-putting to know that your brain is doing things completely unaware of what in this class we would call one’s I-function. According to Gladwell, it is possible to unlock these doors. This is what professionals do. In the case of scientists who study the precise movements of every isolated facial muscle in order to determine even the slightest hints of motions on any person face, because they developed the system themselves and practiced for 7+ years, their ability to thin-slice people’s facial expressions is at a much higher level than the rest of us. We of course can still do it, and we do it often, just not at the same level. This goes for Gladwell’s examples of the food tasters as well: while we may have almost the exact same experience as they do while eating something incredible, our experience would end there. Their experience would go further: they could analyze exactly what they tasted that made the food wonderful – there is so and so much citrus, so and so much of the citrus is orange or lemon or pineapple, etc. Gladwell’s arguments are structured around countless examples of thin-slicing, from war simulations and presidential elections to the Pepsi Challenge. Some of his most compelling examples have to do with relationships, and facial expressions and recognition.

Gladwell’s application of his thin-slice theories to the realm of relationships in one of his beginning chapters proves to be very insightful to the rest of his argument. John Gottman is a researcher on the University of Washington campus who has been testing couples for years and is able to predict whether or not the pair will still be together in 15 years. He first video tapes the couple having a conversation about an every day topic, then analyzes the video frame by frame with a coding system (SPAFF, for specific affect) he developed with 20 categories that account for every possible emotion that might be expressed. Every second of the one-hour video is given a number (7 for anger, 10 for defensiveness, etc.) until there is a very long notation of numbers. Gottman says that every couple has a “fist,” a sort of pattern in the way they interact. Based on these calculations, his predictions are 95% accurate (21). The way that Gottman analyzes relationships isn’t a subconscious process, it is complicated and deliberate, but it is an important in example in Gladwell’s argument and relates strongly to how he says we thin-slice events – every second of an event is interpreted, and those interpretations in turn are analyzes for patterns and structures and given an overall feedback. All of this can go on completely unbeknownst to one’s conscious.

Chapter 6 of Blink is entitled “Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading.” This particularly interesting chapter deals in part with the relationship between facial expression and what is going on inside our brains. Scientists Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman created a taxonomy of facial expression, isolating every facial muscle and every combination of muscle movements for every possible facial expression. Some, of course, are meaningless, but many give very important insight to what is going on inside a person’s brain. Their unconscious can reflect upon their face for even just split seconds unbeknownst to one’s conscious (201). By studying these expressions and their implications, Tomkins and Ekman were able to essentially “read people’s minds” by noticing these physical flickers of the subconscious, or “micro expressions. (209)” But a key turning point for their work came when Ekman and one of his collaborators Wallace Friesen found that long hours of practicing certain facial expressions like anger or frustration resulted in actual, physical changes in the autonomic nervous system (206). As Tomkins put it, “The face is like a penis!” – it has a mind of its own (210).

Although this book was easy to read and understand and was obviously meant to appeal to a diverse audience, I did find some important annoyances with it. One main issue I have with it is Gladwell’s extreme repetition. As has been mentioned, his book centers around his use of both anecdotal and experimental examples from all realms of society. While this is an effective way of relating his topic to a wide variety of subjects, in every chapter he goes back and relates each new version of his point with past examples. With in each chapter, sub examples are given and in turn each of these is related to the main examples that the chapter begins with. After finishing the book one can be sure that the cases in the first chapter have been mentioned in every other chapter in the book. Also, sometimes his description of thin-slicing flip-slops between being a positive or a negative entity. In the example of the “love-lab” where Gottman could predict marriage duration, it is a good thing because it is applied to a beneficial, somewhat practical function in society. In his example about the Pepsi Challenge where people who took the test always preferred Pepsi while still preferring Coca-Cola in their everyday lives, thin-slicing was ineffective and un-related to the actual preferences of the soda-drinkers. There are many points like this throughout Blink where it is easy to get swept up in his alluring examples and look past the fact that they don’t always match up just right. Finally, a last problem with the book is that with many of his examples it seems that Gladwell makes assumptions about thing with little given evidence to back them up with. He may explain an example thoroughly enough, but not give sufficient scientific information to really uphold some of the claims that he is making. Similarly, some of his data and statistics seem weak and contrived.

The main concepts of Blink are basically in tune with key concepts we learned in this class. The idea of the I-function versus the self-conscious is what thin-slicing is all about. We go about our lives believing that we are in charge of what we think, how we act, how we are perceived by others, and the decisions that we make -- all of which are controlled by the I-function. However after reading Blink one begins to see that this is in no way true. Our subconscious brain is interpreting the inputs we receive around us all the time in ways that remains mysterious to us, yet are huge factors in the way we think and live. We discussed the idea of having initial reactions to things we perceive, paintings, people, etc., in ways that we could not explain. We might see a person, be attracted to them instantly subconsciously, and then once this information is brought to the attention of our conscious our I-function tries to justify the unconsciousness’ reasoning. According the Gladwell, this would be the work of our brains actively thin-slicing the world around us. Something that was repeatedly brought up in discussion, and in Gladwell’s book, is the idea that not every input is related to and output, or visa versa. In between these two events are millions of possibilities and millions of ways that the brain can interpret and altar this information – the brain has locked doors that you can’t get behind. A fundamental difference that tips my scale of favor in the direction of this course is that the class is based both on theory and hard science while Blink is based on assumptions and often loose experimental observations.

The world of perception and appearance between people is cyclic. You see a person and initiate conversation with them: you immediately and unconsciously thin-slice them. Something tells you that they are subtly patronizing you. It might have been a slight intonation in their voice or a split-second expression on their face, but there is no way for you to know what caused you to have this reaction. If asked why you felt this way, you wouldn’t be able to explain. This perception causes your unconscious brain to manifest itself in your facial expression and body language despite your efforts to control them. At the same time, the person you are conversing with notices your change in behavior, and alters their behavior accordingly. We don’t exist in a bubble: we are the product of everything we experience around us.



Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Chicago: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.