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

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
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's review
Jun 09, 2014

it was ok
bookshelves: general-non-fiction
Read in October, 2009

I was really expecting more from this book. I've heard mostly good things about Gladwell, and he had a pretty interesting TED talk, and I enjoy almost anything to do with the brain, so...why not?

The book certainly brought up a lot of interesting ideas and did a good job of discussing the different elements that go into the snap decisions that we make every day. And it's probably worth a read for many of the stories and experiments related. But for the most part this book really failed to impress. More than that though, it failed at being a coherent analysis of what goes on in the human brain when we make snap judgments.

Gladwell alternates between telling us to trust and accept this "mysterious phenomena" that allows us to make these unconscious snap judgments and warning us against the use of these snap judgments. One moment he advises against the idea that we need to slowly collect data and weigh options to make the most informed opinion and provides examples where too much thinking and information leads us astray, and in the next moment gives us examples of how snap judgments sometimes go horribly wrong. And he leaves us with no clear sense of how to use this new found information to make better decisions and judgments in our own lives. Do I trust my insights because my rational brain will fool me, or do I mistrust my instincts because of the inherent bias contained within them? If Gladwell knows he sure didn't tell me.

One example of somewhere where I think he didn't analyze the situation enough was when he talked about the Wisconsin Card Sorting task (pick cards from one of two decks, one deck tends towards bad and the other towards good outcomes). He focused solely on how the unconscious mind was aware of the pattern (which deck was bad and which was good) long before the conscious mind was aware of it when making decisions. And this was shown by the fact that sweating occurred when choosing from the "bad" deck before the subject knew why (or was even aware of it). What he fails to mention about all this is that the reason for this is because we are designed to be "risk averse". It is not because we are making brilliant snap judgments, or that our brains have "learned" the rules before we are aware of it. From an evolutionary perspective it pays off more to learn from our mistakes than learn from our victories. Mistakes are costly. This is why bad memories are more salient than happy ones. The sweating that occurs is a physiological indicator of and means of prompting the organism to stay away. It's not even that this explanation is in contradiction to Gladwell's; it is that it IS an explanation for the phenomena Gladwell describes, one easily at Gladwells' disposal.

Two other aspects of this book stuck out as major frustrations for me:

1) Gladwell spends a lot of time early on talking about the mysterious nature of our ability to thin slice (make accurate snap judgments based on very little information) and urges us to accept this. To his credit, he does attempt to demystify this somewhat later on, but not enough in my opinion. His first example is of a museum that purchased an expensive sculpture which all the data and scientists evaluated as legitimate, but which experts in the field immediately saw as a fake without being able to put into words why. It's purposefully misleading to label this as some sort of mysterious phenomena. For instance, it's important to remember that these people were experts. An amateur would not and could not make this same snap judgment because they don't have the training to. This ability didn't magically appear, it came from learning and training and synaptic change. These experts learned over time. They studied types of stone, and different styles, and everything else that goes into understanding their field. And this process created memories...synaptic change within their brains. And there exists a system (or systems) in the brain that can make decisions based on that neuronal structure without conscious awareness. Shortcuts so to speak. But these shortcuts are a product of that neuronal structure, which is a product of that synaptic change, which is a product of the learning the individual did over time. It's misleading to call this mysterious. What's important, and more interesting in my opinion, is figuring out the underlying processes that allow this to happen.

2) Towards the end of the book Gladwell discusses how our stress response leads us to make all sorts of bad decisions. He talks about autism and how autistic people can't mind read (don't have theories of other minds) and how this affects their interpretation of events around them and of the world in general. He compares what happens to people in stressful situations to this, that during these situations, because the fight or flight response has taken over, people have tunnel vision and can no longer "read minds" and thus make all sorts of mistakes and bad decisions because they are focusing on the wrong things. My issue is that he, incomprehensibly, makes a literal, as opposed to metaphorical, connection with autism. He argues that during these times we become "temporarily autistic". While it's true that one aspect of our behavior becomes similar to an aspect of an autistic individuals behavior during these times, it seems like a pretty ridiculous statement to make as a broad generalization. He spends quite a bit of time talking about this and I don't think it does anyone any good.

In the end I think I was most disappointed by the fact that all the elements to create a good book WERE present here, and the failure is due in large part to how he puts it all together and his ability to analyze all the disparate ideas properly (insert irony here). Evolution has built into us shortcuts to react quickly to stimuli in our environment. Our experience, whether broadly cultural or personal, prunes, enhances, changes those built in shortcuts as we go through life. Some develop as unfair biases towards people of different races. Some develop as we become experts in a subject. Thus some can be trusted and some can't. Our brains can't tell the difference between fact and fiction, only between experience and non experience, and so it's important to be aware of what kind of decision making goes on under the surface and what factors are involved in those decisions so we can be more aware of whether to trust them or not. Other factors can affect decision making, such as our emotional state due to the physiological changes that take place during those times, and this too is important to understand because it radically alters our perception during those times. The most important thing to remember is that experience translates into instinct through synaptic change, and through work and training we can increase the effectiveness of our gut reactions and snap decisions, but due to biases and our altered states during emotional situations those instincts should not always be trusted outright. There you go Malcolm Gladwell, please feel free to use this in the next printing. No citation necessary.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Tatiana (new)

Tatiana I think your criticisms are well-founded. From what I've read of Gladwell, he's good at asking really interesting intriguing questions, but his instincts are not so good at honing in on the right answers.

Mark Wonderful comments Greg. When's your own book coming out? :-)

message 3: by Dayna (new)

Dayna I didn't even read this book but I like your review!

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