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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005) by Malcolm Gladwell is a book about how we think, about the decisions we make at the blink of an eye and how those decisions can be controlled and nuanced. Gladwell redefines how we understand the way the world operates around us and gives us a wide variety of examples to support his arguments. He hopes to convince his readers about his three main ideas about decision-making:

  1. Snap decisions, or decisions that are made quickly at the blink of an eye, can be as good as those that are made after much thought.
  2. We need to know when to trust our instincts and when not to.
  3. Our snap judgments can be nuanced.

            Even though adults always encourage younger people to make informed decisions, Gladwell shows us different cases where snap decisions can be better. The book starts off with an incidence at the J. Paul Getty Museum back in 1983. The museum bought a marble statue from an art dealer who claimed that it was from the sixth century BC. After carrying out tests and research by trained geologists and historians, the museum concluded that the statue was authentic. However, when certain art dealers, sculpture experts and museum directors saw the same statue, they felt it was a fake at the blink of an eye, although they could not articulate why they felt that way. Their instincts said the opposite of what all the evidence was pointing to. Eventually it turned out that the statue was a fake after all. The decision that the statue did not look right was an instinct and it was more accurate than the one that was concluded after gathering a lot of information. Snap decisions can be as good, if not better, than informed decisions at times.

            Gladwell points out that writing down thoughts or trying to find an explanation behind snap decisions can ruin the flash of insight. “Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.” (pg. 122) For example, suppose someone is given two experiments. In the first experiment, he is given two glasses of soda, one containing Coke and the other containing Pepsi, and is asked to guess which one is which by tasting both. In the other experiment, the person is given three glasses of soda, two containing one kind and one containing the other and is asked to guess which one is different from the other two. It was seen that it was harder to  get the second experiment correct. The first experiment only involves distinguishing between two tastes. The second involves actually understanding and explaining the taste to oneself to be able to compare it with another taste, which requires knowledge and understanding of the taste and that makes it more difficult. “When you write down your thoughts, your chances of having the flash of insight you need in order to come up with a solution are significantly impaired.” (pg 121).

            Does this mean that our snap judgments are always right and we should always trust them? Not necessarily. While snap judgments can be very sound, it can also sometimes be very destructive. Gladwell talks about President Warren Harding – a candidate who looked presidential and had an aura of dignity and common sense. He claims that people's first impressions of Harding were favorable because of his appearance and that made a huge contribution to Harding's electoral success, even though he was not actually a very strong candidate. “The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we've had, the people we've met, the lessons we've learned, the books we've read, the movies we've seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion.” (pg. 85) The general public had formed a positive opinion of him unconsciously and thus voted him, even though he did not have the necessary qualities to be a good president. Most historians agree that Harding was one of the worst presidents in American history.

            Gladwell showed us more examples. He talks about the incidence of the shooting of an innocent man, Amadou Diallo by the police because of wrong snap judgments. The man was standing outside his home late at night in a neighborhood that was considered dangerous and the police happened to be patrolling the area at that time. Their snap judgment told them that the man looked suspicious, when he was only getting some fresh air. His terrified expression was misread as dangerous. The police chased him and together shot 41 bullets at him, only because they thought he was acting suspicious. The wrong snap judgment cost an innocent life.

            Can we nuance these judgments? Yes we can, according to Gladwell. Researchers have carried out experiments in trying to understand people's emotions by reading their facial expressions. By analyzing each muscle movement in the face, a group of researchers have been able to develop instincts about people's minds and feelings that is far superior to what others see from the same expressions. Gladwell talks about the researchers who had developed these skills so well that they were able to predict with 90% accuracy whether a marriage would end up in divorce by looking at a fifteen minute video tape of the couple talking. These people were able to educate and control their snap judgments. That does not imply that snap judgments outside our areas of comfort will be wrong, though. “This does not mean that when we are outside out areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren't grounded in real understanding.” (pg. 184)

            Gladwell also talks about food tasters, for example, who are so well experienced that they do not make the same snap judgments that others do. For example, food packaging generally influences a person's perception of the taste of the food – if the same food is in two different containers, the one that looks better will seem to taste better too. But for someone whose expertise is in that field, their snap judgments will be different, and they will be able to say that the taste is exactly the same, without being affected by the outer look of the product.

            So when should we trust our snap judgments and in what cases should we decide to control them more? I feel like that is a question that was not well addressed in the book. While we are given many examples to show us the difference between the two, it is not explicit about when we know which one to go for. I guess whenever we run into a situation where we have to decide whether to go for a quick instinct or a more informed judgment, we need to make a snap decision about which direction to go!