Review of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink

leigh urbschat's picture

In the introduction to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, he tells the story of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s purchase of an ancient kouros dating from the sixth century BC. The museum had scientists perform test after test on the kouros to make sure it was authentic. It was concluded that the statue was most definitely the real thing, being thousands of years old. When art historians, however, took one look at the statue they new that something was amiss and, sure enough, after a few more tests it was determined that the statue was artificially aged. Gladwell’s book is all about that one look the experts took of the korous to know that it was a fake. Blink is all about the snap judgments we make everyday and how we can use those instinctive judgments to make better decisions.

Gladwell describes the part of the brain that makes these snap decisions as the adaptive unconscious. Most of us are willing to trust empirical evidence, and cumulative observations and data over our adaptive unconscious. Gladwell, however, wants to teach us that this should not always be the case. To show readers that his theory is not as absurd as they may first be inclined to believe, Gladwell gives accounts of many tests and stories that support his cause. One of the more amazing studies comes from a psychologist, John Gottman, at the University of Washington. Gottman brings young couples, who have recently married, to his lab and videotapes them for fifteen minutes. He leaves them alone and has them discuss anything that is a point of conflict within their marriage. Besides the camera, he also hooks the couples up to electrodes, which measure heart rate and how much they sweat, and also attaches a device to their chairs that measures how much they move around. Gottman then goes back and analyses the data and videotapes and is able to determine whether the couple will have a successful marriage. Gottman is a master of facial expressions. He has a numbering system that corresponds to every emotion a couple could possibly express in a conversation. Generally, if the negative emotions in the conversation outweigh the positive or neutral emotions the success of the marriage does not look good. Although these results may look skeptical at first, Gottman has studied over three thousand couple and by looking at his fifteen minute videos has had a ninety percent success rate for determining whether a couple will still be together in seven years. Although Gottman’s work is conscious and deliberate, Gladwell notes that much of what he does is part of rapid cognition, or what he refers to as “thin-slicing.” Gottman finds patterns in behavior based on very “thin slices” of experience, which is a large part of the judgment calls we make everyday.

The snap judgments we make rely on the “thinnest slices” of experience we can get. They are unconscious processes, which is why it can be frustrating that we can not even describe why we feel or act a certain way when prompted by a stimulus. Gladwell believes that it is often detrimental to our judgments if we try to describe what is happening within our unconscious. He gives the example of tennis coach Vic Braden. While working with professional athletes, Braden began asking players how and why they play the way they do. In his research, Braden discovered that none of the athletes he talked with were able to give him a consistent answer to his question. Braden then began videotaping star tennis players and digitizing their movements so that he could see, frame for frame, ever move they made, while, say, hitting a forehand. When asking players how they hit a forehand, Braden found that most said something about using their wrist to roll the racket over the ball. The videos, however, show that the wrist almost never moves until long after the ball has been hit. These players were making up stories to explain something that occurred within their unconscious. The results of these stories were coaches teaching faulty advice and beginners walking away with wrist damage. Gladwell remarks that one of the things humans need to come to terms with is accepting our ignorance in many situations and learning to say “I don’t know.” Many of the outputs of our nervous system result from unconscious inputs, therefore making it often useless to try and explain ourselves.

One of the most memorable stories Gladwell tells relates back to the lesson of the korous and trusting gut reactions over vast amounts of empirical evidence. This story involves a man named Paul Van Riper and the Millennium Challenge War Games of 2002. Van Riper, an experienced Marine Corps commander, was appointed head of the Red Team; the enemy team in which Van Riper was a rogue military commander who had broken away from his government located in the Persian Gulf. He was to have a strong following of religious and ethnic loyalties and was harboring four different terrorist organizations (sound familiar?). The Blue Team (the United States) was given millions of dollars worth of high-tech gizmos and hundreds of military analysts, as well as significantly more troops. The Blue Team was given the equipment to know exactly where the Red Team was at all times, and supposedly all the information to know what the Red Team would do before they actually did it. The events of the games, however, did not go exactly as the Blue Team had expected. On the second day of the “war,” Van Riper sent a fleet of small boats into the Gulf to track the ships of the Blue Team. He them attacked them in an assault of missiles, sinking sixteen American ships before the Blue Team had a chance to strike. Being an experienced military man, Van Riper knew what all the analysts and technology whizzes working for the Blue Team could never understand: when making decisions under immense pressure, experts won’t logically and systematically compare all available information. That takes far too long. Experts know to thin-slice the situation and react to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, this method did not sit well with the United States Military. Those in charge of the War Games “un-sunk” the lost ship and gave Van Riper a script to act from, in which the Blue Team, of course, won. After hearing this story, is it any surprise that shortly after when the U.S. declared war on Iraq, ensuring a straight-forward and quick victory, that troops are still being sent over and loosing their lives? Van Riper’s story provides a frightening example of what can happen when people in high places venomously ignore their snap judgments.

Of course, there are cases in which using judgment can backfire. Take the case of the three police officers working in the South Bronx who came upon Amadou Diallo standing outside his apartment building at midnight. The officers immediately assumed that Diallo was a robber or drug-dealer due to the fact that he was out so late and black. When the officers yelled to Diallo to come talk with them he ran into the vestibule of his house trying to open the inside door. The officers say that Diallo began reaching into his pockets, pulling out what appeared to be a gun. The officers fired forty-one shots, mutilating Diallo’s body. When the three officers went up to look at they man they had just killed, it turned out that what had been in his hand was a wallet and not a gun at all. In this case Gladwell believes that the officers experienced a condition he calls “temporary autism,” in which a person under incredibly high stress is unable to interpret facial expressions, or unable to “mind read.” Gladwell, who is half black, does not believe that these men were bad people or terribly racist, unlike the hundreds of protestors who tried to fight the injustice of the incident (the officers were found not-guilty of man slaughter). Rather, he believes that because of past experiences, when Diallo turned to run they panicked due to the heightened stress of the situations. With heart-rates and blood pressure pumping, they were not able to make clear judgments about the situation, such as reading the fear on Diallo’s face for malice. Although we can never know what would have happened had Diallo been a white man out late at night in the Bronx (all three officers were white) I believe that Gladwell is too easy on the officers. I do partially believe his theory about “temporary autism,” but I think it is fair to point out that the expression of fear is certainly much different from one of anger or contempt. The location of the murder, as well as our inevitably racist society makes this incident just as much, if not more, about race as about mistaken “mind reading.”

Overall, I think Blink is a terrific and incredibly pertinent book. It pertains to literally everyone who may come across it. Blink makes readers think about those first impressions we make everyday, and learn to trust them. It is also important, however, to know when to stop and think about a judgment you are making so that you do not get confused by stereotypes and mistaken “mind reading.” Blink tells readers that it is important to trust the unconscious and to not always try to explain what is going on when we react in a situation. Most importantly Blink shows readers how to make decisions in a faster and more effective way. To end with, I’d like to tell readers about one story which may help you with your finals work. It involves a process called “priming.” Gladwell mentions the study of two Dutch researchers who had several groups of students each answer forty-two Trivial Pursuit questions. Half were asked to take five minutes to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write it down, while the other half were asked to do the same with soccer hooligan in place of professor. The students who thought about professors ended up getting 55.6 percent of the questions correct, while the soccer group got 42.6 percent correct. The professor group wasn’t any smarter than the soccer group, but they were put in a “smart” mind frame before answering the questions. Priming is a process that goes on within the adaptive unconscious that can change the way you think. Future readers, if you are going to get anything out of this book perhaps it can be something that will help with school, but I hope that Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink can teach you a lot more about decision making and the way we all think.

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