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Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell's Blink

RATING: (3 out of 5 Brains)

Well, as a huge fan of Gladwell's last book, The Tipping Point, I was excited last week to finally get my hands on his new effort: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. This time around Gladwell's basic thesis is that often snap judgements (what he calls "thin slicing") can be more accurate than well researched, careful analysis. Gladwell uses many examples (most are interesting) to demonstrate this behavior such as determining when art is faked, sizing up car buyers, picking presidential candidates and determining the characteristics of a person by observing their living space. This has always been Gladwell's talent: taking just-under-the-radar topics and bringing them into the public's view through great journalism and storytelling.

Gladwell is also careful to examine the flipside of this phenomenon: the times when "thin slicing" misleads us or gives us the wrong results. For instance, he presents examples where the mind works based on biases that don't necessarily enter the realm of conscious thought, but are nevertheless there (age, race, height, and so on).

It's a great topic and Gladwell sets it up with some wonderful examples, but then the book begins to have problems. First, the book is a little too anecdotal. Anyone who has ever had a 200-level psych class knows that what looks like cause and effect may be accounted for by an independent variable that wasn't considered (e.g., concluding cancer rates are higher in some area of the country because of pollution, when in fact the area has higher smoking rates as well). Given this, I found that too often conclusions are made on basic handwaving, or that important aspects of studies are not mentioned. For instance, Gladwell describes a study were observers are asked to determine certain characteristics (such as truthfulness, consciensciousness, etc.) of students by observing their dorm rooms; but, never does he mention how exactly one would determine these characteristics of individuals in a scientific manner for comparison. Such omissions leave the reader a little less than convinced.

Nevertheless, even with this flaw the first third of the book supports the thesis and makes for the usual entertaining reading; but things derail from there. The examples start to seem more peripheral: a rogue commander beating the conventional forces in a war game exercise, an artist known as Kenna who apparently should have made it big but didn't (why this example is interesting I've yet to figure out), and some rehash about coke vs pepsi from one of his older articles.

By the end of the book the whole thing derails into examples that just don't seem appropriate for the topic. Sure a study of why Pepsi always does better than Coke in blind tastes tests is interesting (and you can read his article on this without buying the book on Gladwell's web site), but does a study of "sips" vs "whole-can drinking" — people prefer sweet for sips (Pepsi) — really say something about unconscious rapid cognition?

One of Gladwell's greatest strengths is in recognizing interesting things, and then bringing them into conscious awareness so we actually realize these things are happening (whether it be tipping points or rapid cognition). I think he's partly achieved that in this book, but it doesn't come together the way the Tipping Point does. One gets the idea that this topic may have been better handled in an article rather than a full blown book.

Posted by Eric Freeman on January 27, 2005 | Permalink


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Sorry to add this off-topic comment, but I don't know where else to put it...

You recently changed your blog, so far as I can tell, from full RSS feeds to partial RSS feeds. Any chance of you changing back? Please?

I want to read what y'all write!

Posted by: Dori | Jan 27, 2005 6:28:35 PM

Dori, I'll send you an email to discuss.... If anyone else has opinions on the RSS also send me email at ericspam at mac.com (that's the real address, no need to take off the "spam" part).

Posted by: Eric | Jan 27, 2005 6:39:20 PM

Love the brain rating :-)

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 27, 2005 10:48:33 PM

Great Review. I'm also a big fan of the Tipping Point and was wondering if I should get "Blink". Maybe I'll look for it at the library.

On a related subject, you may want to read "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin deBecker. He provides great examples of "fear as intuition" and some wonderful insights into the human psyche. One word of warning... he is dealing with fear and prediction of violent behaviour so if you aren't comfortable dealing with "the dark side" of human nature, his book might not be for you.

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Jan 28, 2005 7:57:37 AM

Johannes, thanks on the brain graphic, you'll notice a certain resemblance to the graphic on the spine of Head First Design Patterns. Kathy liked it too. ;)

Dave, I'd definitely recommend the library and a quick read through it. Also, check out gladwell's past articles on his site, quite a few of the topics are covered there (although without the "rapid cognition" thread sewn through them).

Adding "Gift of Fear" to my list! Thanks.

Posted by: Eric | Jan 28, 2005 8:18:28 AM

I finished Blink a couple of weeks ago. I think your '3 brain' rating is pretty accurate. I found the book disappointing on the whole, but with parts that were worth the read.

Gladwell talks about Gary Klein in his book. I read Klein's "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions" four or five years ago. I think this is a superior book. The case studies alone are amazing. This book is well worth the read.

Posted by: Bob Hutchison | Jan 28, 2005 1:37:50 PM

Thin Slicing is the ability to find patterns in certain situations and behaviors based on very little experience. When thin-slicing you do this without knowing you are doing it. You think without knowing your thinking. Is this really an accurate way of decision making? I personally feel making a judgment or important decision spur of the moment is not an accurate and safe way of making a decision. Does this mean the theory of Malcom Gladwell author of blink is inaccurate? Of course not!!! I do agree with your rating of "3 out of 5 Brains". I really enjoyed how he gave so many examples, which backed his theory. I think without all those examples, some good decisions and some bad decisions the book would not have been as effective. However I found myself more intrigued with the last half of the book as opposed the first half. But after reading your initial posting you made an excellent point. I don’t think the examples towards the end of the book such as the Pepsi Challenge, Army or Orchestra audition had much to do with the topic – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I thought Blink was a good book and the first half had some really good examples that backed his theory. I have not read his other book, The Tipping Point but based on all your comments I think I may actually read it this summer. After reading Blink I look at decision making in a whole different context. Some decisions can be made without thinking, a spur of the moment decision. However I still feel important decisions such as telling a couple that their marriage is or is not gong to last needs some additional thinking through.

Posted by: Jamie K | May 27, 2005 4:59:39 PM

I think that Gladwell did a good job of expressing his thoughts through the use of stories. Even though he did not have any solid theories to support his hypothesis the multitude of stories proved that we can all learn to make better, faster decisions. As you look at your own life and experiences you can see how you can learn from mistakes and successes to form your next thought and response to different situations. If you can look back at your life as well as the examples in this book you are going develop better decision making skills. The key is to reflect on these decisions and try to pick up on certainties that can be used when approaching new situations.

I feel that thin slicing is not to be used on important decisions. Big decisions, such as where to move or a new job, cannot be made at the spur of the moment or with little reflection. Thin slicing is best used on the everyday decisions or decisions that may pop up at work. I think that the level of consequence can determine the applicability of thin slicing. Decisions with potentially big consequences should not be made using thin slicing. Decisons where the consequences are small then thin slicing could be used. These are the decisions where you can get good at thin slicing and use on a regular basis.

Posted by: Kris H. | Jun 2, 2005 2:38:20 PM

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