Books with interesting ideas that contradict with our widely held beliefs are always exciting to read. Only a few authors, at present, are competent enough in introducing themes like this. Canadian Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is one of them. Gladwell is quite famous with Outliers (2008), which was a different approach to explain the probability of success. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) is another bestseller from him which tells us about rapid cognition, intuitive judgment and the art of taking decisions in a “blink” of an eye without any deliberate thinking.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”

Ever heard this saying? We are always told to take time and consider all the possible information while taking decisions. But in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tries to convince us the other way round i.e sometimes a cover is enough to judge a book. Even though this seems a little bit irrational, Gladwell successfully builds his thesis on real life stories and case studies from psychology to prove his point.

In short, the theme of Blink centres around our brain’s strategy in making decisions. Psychologists primarily refer two kinds of strategies to sense any situation (i) conscious thinking- a rational approach which takes more time and evidence and (ii) adaptive unconscious- an instinctive, intuitive, rapid cognition with snap decisions taking less time and evidence. We generally trust our conscious decisions because of their credibility. But, Gladwell argues that our quick decisions and snap judgments can also be as good as decisions made with cautious thinking.

Gladwell elucidates his claim with the research done by psychologist John Gottman on married couples. John Gottman is renowned for his prediction on the fate of marriages with an accuracy of 90% just by watching fifteen minute conversation of the couples. How could he do this? Well, Gladwell ascribes it to the act of ‘thin slicing’. In psychology, thin slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience. Gottman actually records the emotions, facial expressions and perspiration of the couples he interviews. He looks for the signs of contempt, which he believes the major indicator of trouble in a marriage. This means, he actually throws away the irrelevant information and picks up the thinnest slice of useful evidence, the same way our unconsciousness works in making snap judgments. Gladwell cites another study of thin slicing which says that strangers who just spent only a few minutes thinking about us may have a better understanding of who we are than our close friends, who have known us for years.

Gladwell further states that the thinking behind thin-slicing cannot be dredged up, that means often the person doing thin slicing cannot explain how he could do it. For instance, tennis coach Vic Braden was famous for accurately predicting double faults made by players while serving the ball. But, when asked about it, Vic Braden was unable to figure out how he could do it. Gladwell says, “Snap judgments and rapid cognition takes place behind a “locked door”, somewhere deep inside our unconsciousness, which limits us from articulating it in actual vocabulary“. The same was observed in speed-dating experiment. Speed dating is a social activity in which people seeking romantic relationships will be allowed to have short conversations (typically five minutes) with potential partners in order to determine whether there is mutual interest. Surprisingly, psychologists found that the people the speed daters are attracted to and the people the speed daters consciously think they’re attracted to are often different.

Not just the speed daters, we too often find a clash between what we actually want and what we “consciously think” we want. In this regard, Gladwell heavily criticises polling and blindfold tests in deciding the future of a product. Coca-cola once performed blindfold sip tests on people to see their judgment on the taste of new Coke flavour in contrast to Pepsi. The tests were proved to be positive, but when the product was released to public, the sales were horrible. Here Gladwell highlights the inability of layman people to articulate their intuition in verbal form. In conscious terms of taste, new Coke was great, but in intuitive associations with the brand’s old colour, old logo and shape of the bottle, the new one didn’t find any favour among the public. Gladwell concludes that people not only decide to buy a product based on its taste but also for its packaging and personal associations. He mentions a plenty of products (Margarine, 7 UP, Chef boyardee) which went successful among market just because of their modified looks and packaging.

Gladwell then shows how too much information can overshadow our decision making process. For example, during shopping, it is more likely you will get confused if you are shown wide number of clothing choices, rather than some limited items. Gladwell explains the same logic with the case study of Millennium challenge, a war game exercise conducted by US Army in 2002 to test their military strategies. In this exercise, US soldiers (Blue team) would fight against a fictional enemy (Red team), headed by retired military commander Van Riper. Long story short, Blue team fought with conscious decision making, weighing too much information and options in predicting the enemy’s steps, which later turned out to be inaccurate. On the other hand, Van Riper used intuitive decisions, snap judgments and improvisation, which gave them (Red Team) more control over Blue team.

Gladwell, however, does not always uphold intuition over rationality. At some point, he discusses the downside of rapid cognition by taking some examples where our intuitive decisions, snap judgments and first impressions might go wrong. Implicit Association Tests (IAT) in psychology say that we sometimes use stereotypes (race, gender, age etc,) as mental shortcuts to make quick decisions. This is quite evident from the instances where some people “falsely” assume black people and women as less intelligent than white men even though they ‘consciously think’ racism is unethical. Gladwell further details the tragic death of an immigrant named Amadou Diallo in US, in 1999. Diallo was shot dead by police officers, who assumed him as a criminal, based on their own false quick decisions. Gladwell argues that due to the high stakes situation, the officers lost their natural ability to think clearly and failed to pick up facial clues (fear and panic) of Diallo and hence killed him. “Our rapid cognition can go wrong when we are under high pressure. However, these snap judgments can be controlled and educated when proper training is given” Gladwell says.

Gladwell finally concludes that we need to recognise the power of rapid cognition and should not discredit its importance simply because it is sometimes biased. With proper practice and experience, we can use rapid cognition to counteract prejudice and make incredible snap judgments that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counselled, the way job interviews are conducted and so on.

So, what do you think of Blink? If you’ve read this book, please share your thoughts. 🙂