A few days ago, my mom and I went through a bunch of her books, cleaning off shelves and deciding what to get rid of. One book in particular caught my eye: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.
After seeing the cover, feeling its peculiar rough softness, and hearing my mom’s opinion that it was really good – despite her wanting to try to sell it – I made a split-second decision to read it.
It is this kind of split-second decision that Blink is all about.
Every day, we make decisions using what Gladwell calls our “unconscious” mind (I know it’s tempting, but try not to think too much about Freud here, even though it’s his term). These quick, split-second decisions don’t use the same kind of rationality as weighing the pros and cons, or considering all the factors involved. In fact, the more factors, pros, and cons you consider, Gladwell teaches us in the book, the more blind you will be to the wisdom of your unconscious. Our experiences, education, and training all combine to create this second mind that can make important judgments in a fraction of a second, seemingly without any rhyme or reason. But in certain cases, the unconscious should be used and trusted.
For example, Gladwell introduces the book by telling the story of the Getty museum’s purchase of a piece of ancient art. The Getty did all kinds of authenticity tests on the work, and after much study it was declared authentic. But then some experts took a look at it. The moment they looked at the statue, they had a bad feeling about it. They couldn’t name anything in particular about the statue that was wrong; it just “didn’t look right.” After digging deeper into the statue’s history, it was found to be a fake. Somehow, the experts just knew, from the very first second.
Blink goes deeper into this idea, citing example after example of different kinds of situations in which the unconscious is used. Sometimes the unconscious is victorious, like in the case of the Getty; in others, however, the unconscious can be our worst enemy, as Gladwell illustrates throughout the book.
I thought this book was a gem among non-fiction. Gladwell was not mysterious or mystical about his findings; he was scientific and got straight to the point from the beginning. He didn’t mince words, reminding us every few paragraphs of how extraordinary and life-changing his discoveries are, as far too many writers are apt to do; he conversed with his readers as an equal, rather than lecturing as a teacher. And he didn’t stop at one aspect of his idea. He explored every avenue, examined every loophole, and really thought through what his findings could actually mean and where they could lead us. I think reading the Afterword is crucial; after throwing example after example at us, he really tied it together and introduced a way that we could actually implement the ideas in our system.
So many non-fiction writers are just so overly confident about their theory, and they throw it in their readers’ faces. Sometimes I feel “talked down to” when I read a book of this kind, about new discoveries in psychology and human nature. And they use numberless examples to explain the same principle. Another writer might have written the story of the Getty and then used that as an argument that the unconscious should always be trusted, in every case, and then used the rest of the book to support that argument. But Gladwell didn’t do that. He did his research. He showed where and how the unconscious can be dangerous, unfair, or even just downright foolish, as well as other examples of its merits. He went through all the details before making claims. And that was definitely something I appreciated.
I do think that, at times, Gladwell got so enthusiastic about one illustration that he went into it way deeper than he needed to, but it never really got boring. The book was so interesting that I read it in just a few days, for only a couple hours a day (and I’m not a very fast reader). And, like I said, Gladwell never got caught up in explaining why his ideas were so fascinating. He just let it speak for itself. And it worked – because, as anyone can see, his ideas are fascinating.
I would definitely recommend this book. Already, just knowing what I know about our quick judgments, I feel better equipped to judge my own judgments. (Yeah, I know, that sounds pretty weird.) When can I trust my gut feeling, and when do I need to override it? This book taught me not only when to do both, but why.
For example, now I know that when I picked up this book and decided in one quick moment to read it – my unconscious was doing a pretty bang-up job.