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Blink Book Review

Stacy Blecher's picture

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking believes that we live in a world that instills in us the idea that the quality of a decision is directly related to the amount of time and deliberation that went into making it.  His book aims not only to debunk the theory that more time and deliberation will lead to a more sound choice, but also to affect a change in the way people regard their unconscious and make decisions.

Gladwell went about this task by outlining various studies and recounting anecdotes in which people use what he refers to as “adaptive consciousness” and “rapid cognition” to make all kinds of decisions, from the emergency room to the speed-dating scene.  He defines adaptive consciousness as, “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings (Gladwell,11).”  Upon first read, it seems as though Gladwell advocates going with one’s natural first instinct.  However, upon closer reading of the book it is apparent that what he is describing is not innate in the sense that instincts are.  Furthermore, Gladwell warns that relying on the unconscious is not always the favored approach to decision making.

Two examples summarized in Blink suggested that a long decision making process in which lots of information is collected, analyzed and mulled over, proved to be inferior to rapid decision making.  In both Millennium Challenge, the most expensive war simulation game in history, and at the Cook County Hospital outside of Chicago, snap judgments proved to be extremely valuable and surprisingly (or not) accurate.  The Millenium Challenge consisted of two team representing two countries at war.  The blue team, meant to characterize the United States, had access to a seemingly infinite amount of intelligence gathering and communication technologies.  Subsequently, the blue team developed a strategy based on intense analysis of information and direct contact with ground troops.  The red team, on the other hand, did not have access to any of the red team’s technology.  Accordingly, the red team relied primarily on information they were able to ascertain from the field and made quick decisions regarding how to proceed on the field in the heat of the moment.  The results of Millennium Challenge suggested that all of the information and technologies granted to the blue team ironically led to their defeat on the battlefield.  The amount of time they spent analyzing information –usually useless information –slowed down their decision making process and made them vulnerable to attack.  The red team, by contrast, relied on far fewer factors when making their decisions.  One thing that the blue team did not utilize that the red team did allow to influence their decisions making was their gut intuition. 

Gladwell tells of another situation in which an excess of information lead to fatalities –this time not virtual fatalities, but the real deal!  Physicians at the Cook County Hospital correctly diagnosed patients suffering a heart attack when less information and symptoms were provided.  These results run counter to what physicians are taught in medical school.  Doctors are taught to take detailed histories of patients and conduct a thorough full body exam before diagnosing a patient.  In the case of diagnosing heart attacks however, it seems that there only a few key symptoms which need to be taken into account.  While some doctors might claim that they are simply being thorough (better to be safe than sorry!), Gladwell might respond by saying that they are actually putting patients in harm.  The extraneous information is not useless, but harmful in that it confuses the issues and makes physicians second guess themselves.

I had an issue with Gladwell’s use of the word “instinct” in this book.  Instinct implies an inherited or innate disposition and what he is writing about –at least in regards to the IAT –is culturally imbedded.  The Race IAT, or implicit association test, focuses on the quick connections we make between pairs of ideas that are familiar to us.  In the case of the Race IAT, the association is between Black men and harm or evil.  This association is in no way innate and, believe it or not, it is not racist either.  This, and all, first impressions are generated by our experiences and environment.  It is not surprising that a society in which the nightly news features stories of Black men murdering, robbing and drug dealing, people unconsciously couple Black man with evil.  It is likely that if the media featured the crimes committed by White men instead of bushing them under the carpet and focusing on the transgressions of Black men, that over time there would be shift in Race IAT scores across the nation. 

This is one of the messages Gladwell drives home:  If we can control the environment, then we can effectively change how we make rapid choices.  He urges people to acknowledge the power of their unconscious, not as some magical, illusive force that is locked away in some closet out of reach, but rather, as something that should be protected, controlled and educated.  However, this is where Gladwell leaves the book.  He does not suggest any methods or exercises to do that might help us to educate our unconscious.  Also, aside from mentioning that environment effects our decisions, he fails to explore the many cultural influences on our unconsciousness.  As a Sociology major, I am well aware of the fact that environment, culture and decision making are all intricately influenced by one another, however I was hoping to be provided with some hypothesis as to how.   

This book seems to be right on target with everything that we have discussed in class.  There was a story about a gambling card game in which people had to choose between a red and a yellow card to determine how much money they would win or loose.  Just like in the three door game that you presented in class, participants unconsciously began to choose the right cards before they could verbally explain the pattern.  Another instance in which the book closely reflected class discussion was when Gladwell told the story of Amadou Diallo, an innocent Black man shot and killed by the police.  His explanation for their wrong doings was that they saw someone, they couldn’t see him well, and nonetheless they (or their neocortex) quickly began to compose some story to justify his presence outside so late at night.  Finally, the ending of the book was perfectly in sync with the take-home message of the last class: “I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am and what I find around me.”


Samir Kumar 's picture


Yes the feeling one gets after reading Blink is a mixed one. On the one hand we are advised that the mere self awareness about our subconcious mind would help us to take snap shot decisions which are at times better than the one taken after a prolonged analysis. Yet Malcome Gladwell plants the seeds of doubt by suggesting that you cannot always trust your insticnts as they can be prejudiced at time. Ironically I found that he answered this in his first book called the "The Tipping Point". In Tipping point he points out that if we want our subconcious mind to grow then nurture it and expose it to as much knowledge as possible. To sum up decision making in an art as well as science and it is upon the individual to decide how he would like to belnd it. In a way this is why Malcom did not advocate any parituclar style to follow when it comeS to taking decisions. He just shared his thoughts and left the conclusion to us.

I also found him advocating the concept of Emotional Intelligence as well. After all no decison is made in isolation and by following only pure rationality.