Carolyn's Reviews > Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
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Jan 06, 09

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Read in January, 2009

** spoiler alert ** I was surprised to find that this book is not a discussion of our innate ability to intuit the truth of things given only small amounts of information: to come an accurate judgement of something in a "blink." A few comments from friends led me think that this was the thesis of this book. Not so.

Rather, all of the studies Gladwell describes and almost all of the various cases he cites and "experts" he interviews prove the opposite: our raw intuition is usually wrong. Those who are able to make accurate snap judgements of others usually can do so as a result of long, painstaking research into which factors will predict a certain outcome, followed by rigorous training to recognize those factors. In any case, not to come to erroneous conclusions about other people requires, at a minimum, conscious self scrutiny (for example, he describes one car salesman who avoids charging black customers more than white customers, unlike most car salesmen [and who knew? but a large number of studies show that they do] only by consciously taking care not to do so), and, more optimally, by blinding ourselves entirely to the appearance of the person we are judging.

In some cases, it's impossible for even the experts to judge. The only way doctors in an ER know who is at highest risk of having a heart attack, it turns out, is for them to follow a printed algorithm which was designed based on a mathematical analysis of the factors which put patients at highest risk. Even the most experienced, senior doctor's sense of a patient's condition is a terrible guide to who is the sickest, in this case. A piece of paper taped to the wall does a better job.

I was eager to read this book because I'm interested in our tendency to overestimate our ability to make judgments of others, and there is a partial description of the some of the types of error we tend to make when we're sizing one another up. (Another fascinating book which touches on this topic--but which is unfortunately more deeply flawed in some ways than this one--is The Spirit in the Gene.)

There are a few large-ish problems Gladwell's arguments, however, and in some cases the interesting research or cases he cites actually undermine his point. Rather than acknowledge this, the author does a little bit of hand waving at times. (The doctors, for example, cannot make good judgements because they have "too much information.") This undermined my enjoyment of an otherwise engaging book. But it's a very quick read, and you're likely to be amazed at some of the very surprising insights that some ingenious researchers have recently gained into the way our brains work, and the way we think.

I'm putting it on my list to reread. I'd like to take a look at some of his primary sources, especially 1. the work of the psychologists who do the "thin slicing" of interactions between married couples, and 2. the study which revealed that being reminded that one is black at the beginning of an examination tends to have profound, adverse effects on the outcome of the examination.
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