Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Summary

  • Last updated on March 25, 2021
Title Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Author Gladwell, Malcolm

Executive Summary

With the publication of several best-selling books, reporter Malcolm Gladwell has emerged in the 2000s as one of the most influential figures in American letters. Extending the trademark style that he developed in 2000’s The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s research in 2005’s Blink spans many different disciplines and areas of study in a dazzlingly comprehensive analysis of the mechanisms and processes that underlie our ability to make decisions rapidly.

Gladwell begins with several chapters that illustrate the ways that very accurate decisions can be made rapidly. Indeed, according to the anecdotes and case studies that the author presents in the introduction and the first several chapters, our initial, intuitive response to a person, object, or event -- the one that transpires in the first few milliseconds of our exposure to it -- is often the one that proves to be correct.

This ability is predicated upon the process that Gladwell terms "thin slicing." The human mind can often examine a situation and skim all of the information that is necessary to make a correct decision and plot a course of action almost instantaneously. The most accurate "thin slices" are often those that involve our assessment of the emotional or mental states of others. Apparently, evolutionary processes that have unfolded over the course of many millennia have allowed us to be able to assess the actions and motives of our companions with a split-second glance.

However, although the human mind’s ability to thin-slice is remarkable, its utility is tempered by a number of distinct characteristics. First, the thin-slicing mechanisms in the brain reside almost entirely in the unconscious, rendering it impossible for us to access them deliberately. Indeed, as Gladwell points out, we often don’t know what our unconscious knows or how it has helped us to make a decision or choose a course of action. It seems that people often develop their own, alternate accounts of decision-making to explain away the brain’s rapid thin-slicing ability.

Over the course of the next several chapters, Gladwell recounts the ways in which our sociocultural context can impede our ability to benefit from the thin-slicing skill of the unconscious. Most significantly, he asserts, our vast stores of prejudices and biases can often hijack the unconscious and disallow access to our thin-slicing, intuitive abilities.

However, once we learn the power of rapid cognition, we can develop and incorporate solutions that will protect our thin-slicing unconscious from the undue influence of prejudice. Gladwell suggests implementing techniques that will short-circuit prejudices in our every day lives. In this way, he contends, we can reconnect with and benefit from the power of the blink.

Blink Chapter Summaries

Introduction: The Statue that Didn’t Look Right

Gladwell begins with an account designed to illustrate the way our instantaneous reactions to people, objects, and problems are often the most accurate responses. His story relates the details surrounding the acquisition of a particular type of statue called a kouros by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Though there are very few intact examples of this type of statue in existence, the museum was offered a nearly perfect specimen by a dealer in 1983.

As is standard, the museum initiated an investigation into the metal work statue, seeking to validate its authenticity. Preliminary scientific analysis of the piece seemed to corroborate its ancient origins, and the sheaf of documentation the dealer provided to the museum offered a convincing account of its ownership throughout most of the twentieth century. Convinced, the museum closed the deal and began preparations to display the piece. However, in the interim, an array of experts who examined the statue reported mixed feelings about it, ranging from confusion to revulsion.

The accumulation of a large number of these negative intuitive responses to the statue finally prompted the museum to re-open the investigation. Eventually, it was determined that the ownership documents were forged, and the scientific evidence dating the piece had been misinterpreted. The intuitive responses -- which Gladwell terms the "blink" -- proved to be correct.

The investigation into the documents was somewhat vague and this created an underlying question as to the authenticity of the research that was done. Ultimately, later in the book, it was deemed to be very poor. As a result, this led to problems.

Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices: How A Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way

In this chapter, Gladwell introduces the concept of the "thin slice," which refers to the way that our unconscious minds can make what are in many cases highly accurate assessments in a very short amount of time, often a matter of seconds. Although Gladwell employs a number of different concepts to illustrate the power of thin-slicing, he discusses the example of the work of a research team assessing interaction patterns and long-term compatibility in married couples.

The research team that Gladwell observed would videotape married couples having a discussion about a seemingly innocuous subject, such as the idea of acquiring a family pet. On the surface, these conversations usually seemed to be indicative of nothing more than playful banter and typical conversation. However, when the research team analyzed the videotaped conversations carefully, another picture would often emerge.

Looking for telltale facial expressions, body language patterns, and gestures, the team began to formulate a system that could reveal many deep-seated problems and points of contention in the marriage. As their technique became increasingly sophisticated, they found that even a few seconds of the tape could reveal with great accuracy whether the couple would remain married in the long-term. Later, another team of researchers designed an experiment in which they allowed non-experts to examine short excerpts from audiotapes of doctors’ voices, and they were able to make conclusions about which of the physicians would be sued for malpractice with a great deal of accuracy. Gladwell concludes that this validates the innate human ability to thin-slice our environments.

It should also be noted, that Vladimir, the cloaked virtual figment that Gladwell devised, became a noted figure by the end of the Chapter. The introduction of Vladimir is important as his actions in the next chapter foreshadow the theme of the story.

Chapter 2: The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions

One of the confounding aspects of the mind’s ability to thin slice and make accurate judgments rapidly is that our conscious minds often have little or no understanding of this process. Indeed, in many cases, as Gladwell points out in this chapter, our perceptions of the way we make decisions are often woefully misguided. Furthermore, we often tend to underestimate the amount of influence that outside factors exert upon our unconscious decision-making processes.

To illustrate these points, Gladwell describes the outcomes of several recent experiments. In one study, participants were asked to make sentences from scrambled words that all include subtle cues, such as words that describe the concept of old age or politeness. Without realizing it, the subjects completed the experiment, and then unconsciously adopted the behaviors that had been subtly suggested to them in the seemingly random sentences they had untangled.

The concept that Gladwell terms the "storytelling problem" demonstrates that we often invent wholly incorrect accounts of our behaviors and choices. Humans seem to be naturally ill at ease with ambiguity, so we unconsciously create stories that account for decisions we make or actions we take as a result of thin-slicing our environment.

Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men

Although Gladwell has heretofore made a case for the accuracy of thin-slicing, most of us have a negative association with snap judgments, and for good reason: they are often incorrect. In this chapter, Gladwell considers the impact of what he calls the Warren Harding error on the accuracy of our ability to make rapid judgments. He asserts that when we allow our unconscious prejudices and biases to circumvent the "blink" process, our judgments are often inaccurate.

Gladwell first illustrates this argument using the story of former President Warren Harding, whom many historians have claimed rose through the political ranks to finally assume the office of the presidency based largely on the power of his classically attractive "tall, dark, and handsome" physical appearance. With no discernable political skills, other than an impressive speaking voice, Harding shrunk from the responsibilities of his office, and is now often identified as one of the worst presidents in history. Voters allowed their deep-seated prejudices about the connotations of physical attractiveness make their decision.

Gladwell also recounts the results of a number of other research studies that demonstrate the way that our prejudices mislead us, usually unconsciously and despite our best intentions. When our biases hijack our thought process, the "thin slicing" layer of the unconscious, which is capable of highly accurate decision-making, is never accessed.

Chapter 4: Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity

In this chapter, Gladwell outlines another type of problem that can hamper our ability to make accurate decisions -- too much information. In each of the examples that he discusses -- including emergency room triage, improvisational comedy performances, and military war games -- the consideration of too much data can sidetrack decision makers and mire them in a state of confusion.

In the case of Paul Van Riper, Gladwell recounts the unorthodox military philosophy of one the country’s most decorated Marine officers. In retirement, Van Riper was asked to play the role of a rogue Middle Eastern leader in a military exercise that served as part of the preparations for the 2003 invasion of the Persian Gulf. The opposing team -- representing the U.S. forces -- came to the exercise with a plethora of data, often interrupting the fighting to engage in long sessions of analysis.

Van Riper’s team took the opposite approach, making snap decisions to take bold chances when the opportunity presented itself. In a short time, Van Riper’s team had used this approach to achieve a position of strategic advantage over the U.S. team. Similarly, an emergency room doctor pioneered a way to diagnose heart attacks quickly and with great accuracy -- by using far less information than was standard. Often, Gladwell contends, the best decisions are made by relying on only a few pieces of high-quality information.

Chapter 5: Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right -- and Wrong -- Way to Ask People What They Want

This chapter focuses on another part of the decision-making process -- the context in which a judgment is made. Gladwell employs a number of examples and case studies, most of which are drawn from the world of marketing and focus groups. His chief contention is that in many situations, people will make the wrong snap judgment if they are being asked to decide something that is outside of their range of knowledge. Also, Gladwell demonstrates that removing a problem from its normal context makes it very difficult for people to make accurate decisions.

In short, he argues that focus groups often fail to return accurate assessments because they both stretch the limits of the participants’ expertise and remove the product assessment decision from the normal context in which it would be made. In two instances that Gladwell cites -- evaluations of musician Kenna’s potential for Top 40 radio success and the infamous blind taste tests between Coke and Pepsi -- focus groups and experts reached starkly different conclusions in different settings. He asserts that to be effective, market research must match as closely as possible the environment in which the consumption of a product -- whether it is rock music or soda -- will actually occur.

Chapter 6: Seven Seconds In the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading

In this chapter, Gladwell details some of the negative outcomes that can occur when a series of erroneous judgments are made in rapid succession. The author uses the killing of immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of NYPD officers as a case study in the way that misjudgments can snowball.

Gladwell provides context for the discussion by offering a brief overview of the history of mind reading. Although this activity has long been associated with charlatans claiming ESP, the author notes that several researchers and experts who have undertaken intense, sustained studies of the vagaries of human facial expressions have been able to demonstrate a heightened level of perception and insight about the interior emotions and thought processes of other people.

Conversely, individuals with certain types of brain damage or disorders such as autism have an inability to decode facial expressions, and this severely impedes their ability to function normally in social settings. According to Gladwell, the kind of adrenaline rush that results from high-speed pursuits can cause the brain to mimic autism, temporarily inhibiting the ability to decode facial expressions. This, the author claims, was likely the precipitating factor in the seemingly inexplicable death of Diallo.


Conclusion: Listening with Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink

In a short epilogue, Gladwell recounts the way that a simple innovation in audition practices incited a revolution in the deeply entrenched traditions of the classical music world. In one audition, an orchestra instituted the use of screens to conceal the identity of the candidates, because the son of an administrator was auditioning, and it was feared that nepotism might unduly influence the process. As other orchestras began to implement this practice, a strange thing happened: orchestras rapidly began to be diversified by women and minorities. In conditions of anonymity, merit won out over the many prejudicial factors that had long prevailed in the era of non-anonymous auditions. Gladwell concludes the book by encouraging readers to take this lesson to heart and apply the lessons of Blink to make positive changes in their decision-making behaviors.

Categories: Non Fiction