Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
When we contemplate the power of unconscious thought, it’s usually in the context of swirling sexual desire or perhaps a drug-fueled reverie—think Oedipus, Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali, or Timothy Leary. But Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, makes the case that unconscious thought can help us with practical decisions in both work and life. According to Gladwell’s hypothesis, our brains are powerful organic computers that arrive at highly technical yet accurate decisions without having to make much of an effort. He opens his argument with the example of the kouros, a Greek statute that a prominent museum has purchased, convinced after its exhaustive scientific tests that the statue is genuine. But the experts knew intuitively that the pristine-looking statue was a fake. How did they know? That’s what Blink is all about.
Much like The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s previous book on the potential for rapid social change, Blink unites seemingly disparate topics under the rubric of Gladwell’s intriguing theories. He takes us from Greek statuary to marriage counseling to pop music to the 1999 shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York. All these phenomena are affected by the power of instant perception, for both good and ill. The awkward point of Gladwell’s argument is that he’s honest enough to concede the imperfections of quick decision-making: Snap decisions work great, except, well, when they don’t. Gladwell’s explanation for this is that it takes training and expertise to make snap judgments accurate. Throw inexperienced people into stressful situations, and they can make decisions that are absolutely wrong. This is what happened in the Diallo shooting, Gladwell contends: Rookie cops misinterpreted Diallo’s body language so quickly that there was not time to turn back or reassess.
But it’s easy to forgive Gladwell the dings in his argument because he’s such a generous, amusing storyteller. Even in stories we think we’ve heard before, his writing is fresh and funny. Gladwell retells the familiar story of New Coke and its disastrous unveiling with simple, declarative sentences that are nevertheless infused with drama. We know how the story will end, but Gladwell delights us with his re-telling, and he brings new insights into why the soda company decided to tinker with its famous drink in the first place.
All these different examples of thinking without thinking make Blink a hard book to characterize. It’s nonfiction, certainly. But it’s an interesting blend of journalism, sociology, business reporting and even science writing. The marriage of eclectic subject matter to good writing creates a book that zips along on a journey of ideas.