Book Review – Blink

The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Copyright 2005
Little, Brown & Co.

Don't think--blink!

Your brain is built to make decisions and solve problems. That's what we do
with our conscious brain power all day long. But what about our unconscious
ability to make decisions and solve problems? Most of us believe that good
decisions are made with a great deal of effort, taking time, strategizing,
weighing-out all the options, factoring in the variables. If we just spend
enough time thinking things through, we're more likely to end up with an
accurate, effective result. In other words, conventional wisdom says that it
takes time and concentration to make good decisions.

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't think so. In Blink, he's compiled some compelling
evidence that the brain is quite capable of making some astoundingly accurate
decisions in, well, a blink.

Most of us know that intuitive wisdom can be amazingly reliable, yet impossible
to explain in terms of just how it works. Our brains make lightning fast
judgments and assessments second by second. We find ourselves compelled to
make "snap decisions" about things. And while we often override these decisions
in favor of a more laborious problem-solving effort, Malcolm Gladwell's book
makes a convincing argument that we might just benefit by paying closer
attention to some of those "snap decisions." Sometimes, for apparently unknown
reasons, they're dead on.

Case in point, Gladwell tells the story of the J. Paul Getty museum's efforts
to obtain a kouros statue. Kouroi are exceedingly rare, ancient Greek statues
depicting youthful figures in a standing position. Immensely valuable, they
are highly sought-after by the elite art museums and collectors of the world.
When a kouros was presented to the Getty museum in 1983, the museum's curators
immediately set about the arduous task of determining the authenticity of the
statue. At an asking price of 10 million dollars, the risk of purchasing a
forgery was not one the Getty was willing to take. So an army of experts
examined the statue before the purchase. A high-resolution stereo microscope
was used to verify the origin of the statue. Core samples were taken and
tested. Documents describing where and how the statue was found were
authenticated. It was determined that the statue was very old; its marble
having originated in an ancient quarry known to have been the source of
other koroi. It definitely matched the style of other such works of art.
Everything checked out, the museum agreed to purchase the statue, and in 1986
it was proudly added to the exhibit.

However, soon thereafter, questions began to arise about the authenticity of
the kouros. Not from the scientific experts that had painstakingly examined
the statue, but first by one of the museum's board of trustees. And then,
by Evelyn Harrison, one of the world's foremost experts on Greek sculpture.
When she took one look at the statue, she knew something was amiss. She could
not explain it precisely, but her instincts and training were giving her a
"red flag" in spite of the credentials bestowed on the statue by the experts.
Later, Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was shown
the statue. As Gladwell explains:

"Hoving always makes a note of the first word that goes through his head when
he sees something new, and he'll never forget what that word was when he first
saw the kouros. "'It was - 'fresh',"' Hoving recalls. And 'fresh' was not the
right reaction to have to a two-thousand-year-old statue."

Others also raised voices of concern, in spite of the convincing evidence that
the statue was a genuine ancient korous.

As you can guess, the statue did indeed turn out to be a forgery. Upon more
investigative work, the museum discovered that the statue was anything but
ancient, having come from a forger's workshop in the early 1980s. Somehow,
without the benefit of any scientific equipment or detailed analysis, Evelyn
Harrison and others spotted the fake.

What happened here? How did a handful of experts correctly identify the statue
as a fake without more than a moment's first impression, when the deeper, more
intensive analysis insisted on its validity? Gladwell's answer is that these
individuals were tapping into the "adaptive unconscious," that part of our
minds that make split-second assessments. And in the end, their immediate
esthetic judgements proved more accurate than the scientific evidence.

In "Blink" Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker, Washington Post), shows that this
method of thinking is not just an interesting by-product of the unconscious
brain, but is a method of using our brains that can be cultivated and refined,
and ultimately used in a range of practical applications.

On the surface, some of the possibilities are downright hard to believe.
For example, Gladwell tells of John Gottman, a University of Washington
psychologist who, since the 1980s, has been developing a rather amazing
system to determine the odds of a marriage surviving fifteen years or more
based a concept Gladwell calls "thin-slicing." Amazingly, Gottman has
accurately predicted marriage success up to 95% of the time. The data he
collects is simple: a video taped conversation between husband and wife.
But by carefully analyzing a range of variables - such as a slight rolling
of the eyes, subtle shifting in their seat - Gottman develops a picture of
the couple's inner perceptions of one another, and ultimately predicts the
likelihood of long-term compatibility. Powerful information gleaned in a
series of "blinks" within the everyday interaction between two people.

But as Gladwell reminds us, this rapid-fire perception does not always work
to our advantage. In a chapter entitled "The Warren Harding Error," Gladwell
illustrates what can happen when our immediate impressions lead us to incorrect
conclusions. Most historians view Harding as one of the worst presidents in
US history. Yet because of the powerful first impression he made, he evoked
in people the sense that he was "presidential."

"Many people who looked at Warren Harding saw how extraordinarily handsome and
distinguished-looking he was and jumped to the immediate - and entirely
unwarranted - conclusion that he was a man of courage and intelligence and
integrity. They didn't dig beneath the surface. The way he looked carried
so many powerful connotations that it stopped the normal process of thinking
dead in its tracks. The Warren Harding Error is the dark side of
rapid cognition."

Gladwell successfully distills a considerable amount of research on his
subject, while managing to entertain and enlighten. The ideas presented
here are subtle, not earth-shattering. While some readers might find a
certain redundancy in the repeating examples of "thin-slicing," the insights
are thought-provoking and will fascinate those interested in this intriguing
aspect of brain function.

Perhaps most relevant to the meditator is Gladwell's theory that by
conditioning our minds to focus on the relevant aspects of decision-making
(filtering-out biases, and other extraneous data) we can become adept at
making excellent decisions in a rapid, accurate manner.

Everyone can benefit by making better decisions in life. "Blink" give us a
glimpse into some of the more remarkable aspects of this process, and serves
to remind us of the amazing powers of the human mind.


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