Blink Summary

Malcolm Gladwell


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Blink Summary

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In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores the psychological processes of intuition and instinct, examining how we make split-second decisions and judgments—both good and bad—and how the ability that makes us more likely, for example, to accurately read a dangerous situation or an ill-intentioned person is the same ability that makes us unconsciously racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced, even if we consciously espouse other views. As a whole, the book argues for a heightened appreciation of judgments based on less information rather than more—on expert intuition or instinct rather than the less seasoned judgments of the novice.

The Introduction to the book, “The Statue That Didn’t Look Right,” tells the story of the Getty Museum’s purchase of a seemingly ancient statue that appears to be authentic based on its documentation, but that has many experts believing, nevertheless, that something is not quite right with it even though they are unable to articulate precisely what is wrong. This mystery of the statue—is it a fake or is it real?—is not resolved, but it does illustrate the two central ideas of the book—that intuitive or “snap” judgments are valuable, and that experts are especially able to make accurate intuitive judgments.

The Introduction sets the stage for Gladwell’s discussion, in Chapter One, “The Theory of Thin Slices,” of the concept of “thin-slicing,” or the unconscious mind’s ability to find patterns and meaning in the most fleeting “slices” of experience and impressions. Chapter One’s examples of “thin-slicing” include one psychologist’s ability to predict, with 95% accuracy, whether a couple will still be together in fifteen year’s time, and another’s ability to judge someone’s personality with more accuracy than that person’s closest friends based on nothing more than the contents of his or her dorm room. These examples illustrate how experts can take small samples and make significant and accurate predictions and suggest the ways in which we all “thin-slice” experience and observations to make predictions and act accordingly.

Once Gladwell establishes our understanding of the central concept of “thin-slicing,” he explores in Chapter Two, “The Locked Door,” another relevant concept, that of “priming”—the process by which a person’s behavior is changed, without her or his awareness, through subtle environmental triggers—and expands on the interesting ways that we make snap judgments that are based on the subtlest of physical cues and may be at odds with our consciously articulated beliefs and desires. An example Gladwell provides is of the subway system in Spain, which saw a reduction in petty crimes like vandalism and littering when classical music was played over the sound system. This chapter raises questions about the ethics of priming, exploring whether it is ethical to deliberately influence behavior—at school, work, or in other public spaces—without explicitly telling people that they are being influenced. This chapter includes other examples of how difficult it is to know what is behind the “locked door” of our unconscious, citing tennis coach Vic Braden’s uncanny ability to tell when a player will serve poorly, even while he is unable to explain how he knows the serve will go bad, and speed dating participants’ tendency to be drawn to people who do not match their consciously articulated criteria for potential mates.

In Chapter Three, “The Warren Harding Error,” Gladwell focuses on what he calls “the dark side” of thin-slicing—the way that our unconscious minds tend toward prejudices that influence our conscious decisions, such as voting for someone because he “looks presidential,” regardless of his ability (or lack thereof) to do the job—leading, as in the case of Warren Harding, to one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. This chapter also includes a discussion of the Implicit Association Test, a test developed at Harvard that measures participants’ unconscious associations with regard to race, gender, skin color, perceived religion, and other markers of difference. This chapter raises the question of whether and to what extent we are culpable for prejudices of which we are seemingly not consciously aware, and it provides the example of Bob Golomb, a car salesman who has trained himself to eliminate the effects of bias in his sales techniques, and as a result is a far more successful salesman than his colleagues.

In Chapter Four, “Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory,” Gladwell highlights the special value we place, in Western culture, on complex, analytical decision-making and compares it with our devaluation of intuitive or rapid-fire decision-making. He focuses in particular on Paul Van Riper, the retired Marine Corps officer who led the underdog “Red Team” to victory in the Millennium Challenge 2002, a war game conducted by the U.S. military. Van Riper is highlighted because he makes a convincing argument for decentralized, intuitive decision-making in times of urgency (such as on the battlefield). This chapter raises the question of whether and how one can prepare for such times of under-pressure, down-to-the-wire decision-making, offering both comedy improvisational techniques and ER procedures as other examples of structured intuitive decision-making that have a similar kind of urgency.

In Chapter Five, “Kenna’s Dilemma,” Gladwell moves into the area of marketing, exploring how and why some people’s snap judgments are so at odds with others. The example of Kenna, a musician who is loved by critics for his eclectic style but fails to get a record deal because his music does not test well in marketing surveys, is instructive, as it illustrates how the “thin-slicing” of experts differs markedly from the mass market. Other examples in this chapter include the failure of “New Coke” in the 1980s, when Coca-Cola attempted to improve sales by making a version of Coke that tasted more like Pepsi because blind taste test results favored Pepsi, as well as an office chair that did not test well in marketing surveys but that turned out to be a best-seller. In this chapter, Gladwell highlights how expert thin-slicing is especially valuable and considerably more accurate in judging worth than the mass market or the novice, concluding that what turns out to be a successful product might be more accurately judged by the people who are experts in that field.

Chapter Six, “Seven Seconds in the Bronx,” is Gladwell’s account of the tragedy of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant in the Bronx who was gunned down by NYC police outside his own apartment building. This is an example of “thin-slicing” or rapid cognition that went terribly wrong, and Gladwell uses it to explore the idea of “mind-reading”—or people’s ability to read (or misread) others’ facial expressions. Gladwell then provides examples of being “mind-blind,” such as autistic people’s difficulty reading facial expressions and other non-verbal social cues. Of particular interest is the research on police officers whose “mind-blindness” in the highly stressful situation of facing possible suspects turns out to be actually more useful and less dangerous, ultimately, than taking the time (however brief) to try to “mind-read” another’s expression. In other words, stress distorts perception, and Gladwell uses this last piece of research to connect back to the Diallo killing, noting in particular that police officers who work alone are more likely to become “mind-blind” and have to rely on training, which in turn makes them less likely to misread a potentially dangerous situation and kill an innocent person.

In the Conclusion, “Listening With Your Eyes,” Gladwell gives the example of the National Symphony Orchestra’s use of blind auditions to cut down on gender and other kinds of bias in the choice of which musicians are invited to play for the orchestra. In blind auditions, judges listen with their ears rather than with their eyes, and musicians are selected based solely on how well they play their instruments, without their gender, race, or ethnicity affecting how judges perceive their abilities. This is one way that people can eliminate the bias that affects their judgment, but it’s not always or even often an option to isolate out the things that should not affect a person’s snap judgments of others. Ultimately, Gladwell observes, people must recognize how easily their unconscious is affected by outside factors and actively work against the ways that their intuition can be derailed by their biases.