Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro


Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

"Blink is a book about those first two seconds," writes Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Blink is a breezily written, anecdote-filled exploration of rapid cognition: the judgments and decisions we make in a fraction of a second.

Gladwell begins with the story of a Greek statue, one that fooled the Getty Museum experts who made careful rational and scientific analyses of it. Yet visiting art experts, unclouded by expectations or lengthy analyses, were each able to spot the statue as a fraud at first glance. Generally they were not even able to specify why they knew instantly that it was fraudulent.

From this, Gladwell unpacks how snap judgments can be more accurate than lengthy analyses, and why. He calls accurate rapid decision-making "thin-slicing." Thin-slicing is paying intense unconscious (or conscious) attention to only the few relevant elements.

But Gladwell also discusses, using cutting-edge psychological research, how these judgments can also be distorted or just wrong. The most fascinating portions of the book are extended stories, such as a sobering analysis of the still controversial Amadou Diallo case--in which a black man, who thought he was being robbed, was gunned down by white policemen who thought they were endangered, in an example of tragically bad snap judgment. In another story, a Pentagon war game demonstrates how deliberate analysis cannot stand up to thin-slicing in combat situations, yet the Pentagon ignores the results.

Inappropriate analysis interferes with rapid cognition; so does physical stress, emotion, and bias. Through ignorance and through bias, we often observe the wrong things during the split-seconds leading to our judgments. And the problem is magnified by our general lack of access to our mechanisms of rapid cognition.

To illustrate, however, that "our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled," Gladwell presents the work of a number of psychologists. One is John Gottman, who has analyzed thousands of tapes of interactions between married couples and developed a system to predict the likelihood of divorce based on the emotions in the interactions. In the ultimate thin-slicing, he has identified the four most damaging emotions of interaction (contempt, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling) and cut the sample size needed for accurate prediction down to minutes.

Similarly, psychologist Paul Ekman studied facial muscles to develop the Facial Action Coding System, which allows those who master it to consciously interpret facial expressions of emotion, even expressions lasting only a fraction of a second.

Blink careens from one topic to the next, with throwaway details often the most fascinating of all. It deserves its number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and it seems likely to enter our culture and change how we think about thinking.

Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro