On The Bookshelf: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell has big hair. For a 40-something guy, the coils of fluff that spring every which way from his head defy the look of a best-selling author and renowned journalist. A careful student of everything around him, Gladwell knows his hair looks curious. He let it “grow wild” just to see what would happen. The result of that little experiment led to Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a nonfiction book published in 2005 that swept the nation.
The story that began with unkempt hair evolved into a careful study of how people make snap judgments. As Gladwell and his ‘fro walked the streets of Manhattan, he experienced a transformation. He was no longer the intellectual staff writer for The New Yorker in the eyes of passersby; he was a potential criminal. “As I was walking along 14th Street in downtown Manhattan,” Gladwell writes, “a police van pulled up on the sidewalk and three officers jumped out. They were looking, it turned out, for a rapist, and the rapist, they said, looked a lot like me.” When Gladwell looked at the sketch of the man the police were seeking, the rapist was younger, heavier and taller. But, he had the same hair.
Gladwell was able to convince the police he was not their suspect, but the stereotyping left a lasting memory. “Something about the first impression created by my hair derailed every other consideration in the hunt for the rapist,” he writes. “That episode on the street got me thinking about the weird power of first impressions.”
And thus, Gladwell wrote Blink with a central question in mind: How and why do people make quick decisions? And do those decisions mean anything? We’re taught to believe gut feelings are flights of fancy, not rooted in substance and often prone to bias. In Blink, Gladwell attempts to change our belief, telling us to trust those gut feelings. Sometimes they’re wrong—as was the case with the cops who mistook him for a rapist. But your first impressions can be a valuable tool, Gladwell says, even though they happen in just a split second.
Indeed, Gladwell asserts that quick decisions may be as accurate as decisions made carefully over time. Gladwell boldly presents his hypothesis just a few pages into the book, when many readers are rightly skeptical. And immediately, we make a few snap judgments. So you’re saying my instant reactions are better than careful consideration? That if I stereotype someone right away, I might be right?
Maybe, Gladwell writes, and he tells story after story to prove it. In the time it takes to blink, our judgments—called rapid cognition—are formed. Gladwell’s research shows the judgment reached in just a few seconds often mirrors how we really feel in the long run. He also shows we’re able to process an enormous amount of information in those two seconds.
Consider this real-life scenario. A group of firemen enter a burning home. They locate flames in the kitchen and fill the room with water, but the fire blazes on. If it’s truly a kitchen fire, the water should have calmed the flames. Immediately, the firemen sense something is wrong—“what” they don’t know—and flee. Moments later, the floor collapses. The fire is below the kitchen, in the basement.
When the lieutenant was asked how he knew he wasn’t dealing with simply a kitchen fire, he credited extra-sensory perception (ESP). “I just knew,” he says. But when psychologists pressed him, they found a series of splitsecond judgments ultimately led the lieutenant to his answer: He knew the flames didn’t respond to water, the fire was hotter than it should have been and he couldn’t hear it crackle. The living room was hot, too. In those few seconds, he processed all those facts and produced a single, urgent command: Get out. That’s not ESP.
What it’s really called is “thin slicing,” or our ability to judge surroundings quickly. It’s very real in this example: Students watched a two-second, silent video of a teacher and wrote down their impressions. A psychologist compared those reactions with students who actually sat in the class for an entire semester. And what did he find? The two sets of students had the exact same impression of the teacher. Perhaps it doesn’t take weeks to get to know someone.
But lest we go out and follow our every first impression, Gladwell makes a careful distinction: Quick decisions also can be irrational and downright wrong.
Remember Warren Harding? His two years in office resulted in some of the worst examples of leadership in American history. But Harding was “tall, dark and handsome,” Gladwell says—the kind of guy who looks like a president. Harding was persuaded to run for U.S Senate in 1914 and for president in 1920. Though he had the look, voters’ gut reactions were flat-out wrong; Harding wasn’t a good president. In fact, he became one of the worst presidents of all time.
When it comes to someone’s appearance, our personal biases often skew our thinking. And we often can’t explain our snap judgments in words, especially when it comes to someone’s looks. Take the test on yourself to check your bias. When you glance at an attractive man or woman, exactly what draws you to his or her face? It isn’t personality, because you haven’t spoken yet. It might be appearance or dress, but even that is too vague. Get to the specifics: What part of his or her smile did you love most? Most probably, you can’t even remember what the person’s lips, teeth or mouth looked like. You simply know “something” enticed you.
Gladwell ’s point: Don’t dwell on figuring out the details that result in a splitsecond decision, but pay attention to them. Consider them. Even think about believing in them.
Blink started as “a simple adventure story” and took shape as a social commentary. In the book, Gladwell proposes if we can understand how quick decisions are made, the world would be a different place.
For example, 25 years ago, 5 percent of people in major symphonies were women. After the Munich Philharmonic began “blind auditions” behind a screen—which saved the judges from looking at a female trombone player and subconsciously believing her lungs could never be strong enough to outplay a man—statistics show more than 50 percent of people in U.S. symphonies are now women. The blind audition allowed judges to listen to the music instead of looking at the musician.
Gladwell ’s point is a good one: Understanding how and why we make decisions in two seconds changed the culture of the symphony orchestra. But what readers should take away from Blink is less about the institution and more about the individual. Ask yourself, How do I make snap judgments? How can I formulate my thoughts to be less judgmental or more constructive?
Our minds are the most fascinating computers in the world. Gladwell says during those seconds of unconscious thought, we often see things as they truly are. And we can train these thoughts so they are logical and comprehensive. Think of what you could do or become if you could harness the power of those instincts.
Web Exclusive: Download and read Chapter 1 of Blink on Malcolm Gladwell’s site.
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