Think fast 

Making the case for first impressions

Knee jerk opinion has a bad rap. Context is overrated. Everything we need to know was not imparted in college, grad school or the mantras of expensive gurus; rather, in a few breathless seconds, we process information with more proficiency than anyone gives us credit for. Or so goes the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating—if not entirely convincing—new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Like The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s bestselling debut, Blink is about the small stuff and why it’s worth sweating. The Tipping Point showed how the tiniest changes in our environment account for phenomena ranging from crime rates to fashion trends. Blink explores something even smaller: our unconscious thoughts.

The example Gladwell holds up as the apotheosis of blink-think is a minor footnote in art history: the Getty Museum’s acquisition of an extremely rare kouros—the term used to describe a life-sized, free-standing sculpture of a striding, unclothed youth—in the early 1980s. With the aid of stereomicroscopes, geologists verified the statue’s alleged origins to 550 B.C. And without any scientific bona fides, a host of art historians and sculpture experts concluded it was a fraud. Their reactions were made individually and were marked by an instant gut-level instinct that the kouros was never dug from the earth. Because of the split between the Getty and a chorus of international art cognoscenti, the controversy was kept alive until lawyers for the museum proved the statue was indeed a forgery.

How is it that the art experts instantly knew better than trained scientists? What Gladwell is fascinated by, and what Blink is ultimately about, is the answer found in what psychologists call “thin slicing”: the unconscious mind’s ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based on limited patterns of experience. It’s part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the “adaptive unconscious,” the CPU-like part of the human brain responsible for making quick decisions. Gladwell is at his best illustrating the myriad contexts in arts, culture, the military and beyond wherein thin-slicing theory is establishing a foothold.

One memorable example involves the work of University of Washington psychologist Dr. John Gottman, whose “love lab” observes couples discussing a point of contention in their marriage. With 15 minutes of videotaped conversation, Gottman claims to be able to predict whether a couple will still be married in 15 years. After nearly 20 years of study, his accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. In fact, he’s become so adept at understanding the nuances of emotional communication that he’s found that a marriage often hinges on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt.

Quick decisions can go awry, of course, and Gladwell offers the instructive case of a quixotic musical wunderkind named Kenna. Paul McGuinness, manager of the rock group U2, hailed Kenna as the young musician who would change the world. Limp Bizkit’s Will Durst told a producer to sign him on the spot after listening to one song over the phone. Despite these nods from music cognoscenti, Kenna’s career never quite blew up. In fact, after market research had run its course he was unable to get airtime on any major radio station. According to Gladwell, this was owing to the fact that Kenna’s music didn’t fit into any established musical genre. Audiences found it unfamiliar and rejected it.

The same thing has happened in television, politics—even furniture design. TV shows like “All in The Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” tested so poorly with audiences that they barely made it to primetime. In both cases, Gladwell writes, network executives were so certain of failure they didn’t even promote the programs. Of course, they were proven wrong. For all the efficiencies of thin slicing, trust it too much and it stamps out innovation as quickly as any nervous board of directors.

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell is forever mining culture for all things counterintuitive. He’s explored the disconnect between the illusion of safety in SUVs and the vehicles’ predisposition for flipping over. More recently, he’s tackled the idea that plagiarism is always and everywhere a form of intellectual theft. In Blink he writes about an even broader contradiction in his trademark style that distills complex situations and ideas into clear, dinner-table conversation.

Gladwell succeeds at uniting a ton of seemingly random phenomena under the banner of an easy idea with difficult implications. At times, however, the tone feels less like journalistic inquiry than a subtle form of boosterism. Gladwell is fascinated with this material and his excitement proves infectious. This makes for good reading, but many big questions are left unexplored.

Stumping for snap decisions often seems like the intellectual equivalent of campaigning against safety locks on firearms. The questions it raises are endless: If instant decisions are rooted in patterns based on experience, how can anyone be sure his own history is sufficient? If a marriage can be assessed in 15 minutes, how does this help couples interested in improving their relationships? How do we know when it’s safe to trust our adaptive unconscious rather than make our decisions through the cerebral scenic route? How do we determine whose quick decisions are worth trusting? Who will arbitrate?

Gladwell shows that simplicity writ large is indeed complex.

So it’s ironic that deciding whether Blink is in fact “good” is no snap decision. The phenomenon may be ubiquitous as butter, but the implications of what we might or should do with it are vaguer than Madonna’s spirituality. At least Blink is compulsively readable and provides a basis from which to think about the ways we “think without thinking.”

I think.

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