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Your Brain on Hyperspeed
By John Dicker

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell

Little Brown, 254 pages, $25.95

Knee-jerk opinion has a bad rap. Context is overrated. Everything we need to know is not imparted in kindergarten, college or the gnarliest of Buddhist retreats. Rather, in a few breathless seconds we process information and make decisions with far greater 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 best-selling debut, Blink is about the small stuff and why it’s worth sweating. The example held up as the apotheosis of “blink think” is a forgotten footnote of art history: the Getty Museum’s acquisition of a rare kouros statue in the early 1980s. Abetted by stereomicroscopes, geologists gave the statue their imprimatur as being authentic; and without anything more than a cold stare, a host of sculpture experts concluded it was a fraud within seconds. Because of this split, the controversy was kept alive for years. Ultimately, lawyers for the Getty proved the statue was a forgery through flaws in its documentation.

So how can an assortment of art experts instantly see something that trained scientists can’t? This question is what Gladwell is so fascinated by and what Blink is ultimately about. The answer, Gladwell explains, is “thin slicing”: the unconscious mind’s ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based on only limited patterns of personal experience. It’s part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the “adaptive unconscious,” or the CPU-like part of our brains responsible for quick decisions.

Gladwell is at his best illustrating the myriad of contexts in art, culture, the military and beyond where thin slicing is establishing a foothold. One memorable example is the work of Dr. John Gottman, whose “love lab” has been studying married couples’ conversations for nearly two decades. With a mere 15 minutes of videotaped discussion, Gottman can predict whether or not a couple will be married 15 years down the road. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. In fact, he’s become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he’s found marriages often hinge on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money and those meddling in-laws.)

Quick decisions, of course, can go awry. Gladwell offers the case of a quixotic musical wunderkind Kenna. U2’s manager Paul McGuinness hailed him as an artist who could change the world. Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst advocated signing him on the spot after hearing a song over the phone. Yet despite these nods, Kenna’s career never blew up. After market research was through with him, he couldn’t even get on a radio station. According to Gladwell, this was because his music didn’t fit into any genre. A fatal flaw of thin slicing is its tendency to marginalize anything that doesn’t fit a pattern. Ironic that such an innovative field of psychological research is devoted to a process that filters out innovations.

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell mines the culture for all things counterintuitive. He has explored the disconnect between the illusion of safety offered by SUVs and their tendency to flip over. More recently, he’s contested the notion that plagiarism is always and everywhere a form of intellectual theft. In Blink he writes about an even broader contradiction in his trademark voice that distills complex situations and ideas into a clear conversation.

Gladwell succeeds at seamlessly uniting a ton of seemingly random phenomena under the banner of an idea. However, the questions he raises and then leaves hanging are legion: If a marriage can be assessed in 15 minutes, what does it mean for husbands and wives interested in staying together? If thin slicing is rooted in patterns based on experience, how can anyone be sure their own history is adequate? How do we know when to trust our adaptive unconscious rather than making decisions via the cerebral scenic route?

At times, however, Blink’s tone feels less like an investigation than a subtle form of boosterism. Stumping for quick decision making, with all its professed flaws, feels like advocating for the removal of gun safety locks. But because it’s neither straight-up psychology, sociology nor phenomenology, Blink is extremely refreshing. However, it’s more than a little ironic that deciding whether or not it’s actually “good” is a decision that can’t quite be made in a snap.

 


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