Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2005. $25.95.
Malcolm Gladwell serves as the staff writer for The New Yorker and formerly served as the business science writer for The Washington Post from 1987 to 1996.. In 2005 he was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People. His previous book, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference," (2000) along with this volume under review were number one New York Times bestsellers. He graduated from the University of Toronto, Trinity College, with a degree in history.
Gladwell notes that this book about “the first two seconds of looking … a single glance” — also known as a “thin slice” (10, 23). He defines a ‘thin slice’ as “refer[ring] to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (23). He notes that thin-slicing “is a central part of being human” (43). Gladwell’s aim in this work is to show not just the “power of the glance” but also “when our instincts betray us” (14) and how we may educate and control those snap judgments (15).
In the Introduction, entitled “The Statue that Didn’t Look Right,” curators of a new museum almost purchased a statue with which, after much research, they felt comfortable. Yet, two experts immediately felt this statue was a fake — and they were correct, even though they did no research like the curators. Gladwell uses this initial example to springboard the discussion as to why the ‘blink’ of these two experts was correct.
In Chapter One, entitled “The Theory of Thin Slices: How a Little Bit of Knowledge Goes a Long Way,” Gladwell takes the reader to “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington where John Gottman examines a couple for fifteen minutes to determine the nature of their relationship and communication skills and whether the marriage will last — with a 95 percent accuracy level (23). In Chapter Two, entitled “The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions,” Gladwell notes that “snap judgments are … enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience. But they are also unconscious” (50). This chapter outlines how well we immediately act and think are “a lotmore susceptible to outside influences than we realize” (58).
In chapter Three, entitled “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men,” Gladwell shows the readers the “dark side of rapid cognition” (76) by putting forth the example of Warren Harding, an unintelligent man “vague and ambivalent on policy,” became the twenty-ninth president of the United States. (73-74). Often our unconscious attitudes “may be utterly incompatible with our stated values” (85). In Chapter Four, entitled “Paul Van Riper’s big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity,” Gladwell shows that rapid cognition under “fast-moving, high stress conditions … is a function of training and rules and rehearsal” (114). Gladwell notes that good decisions rely on both “deliberate and instinctive thinking” and must be reduced “to its simplest elements (141).
In Chapter Five, entitled Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right — and Wrong — Way to Ask People What They Want,” Gladwell deals with the issue of when a product (whether the music and Kenna or the Coke/Pepsi taste tests of the 1980s) tests one way initially but another way when fully experienced and absorbed. The last chapter, entitled “Seven Seconds in the Bronx,” Gladwell outlines mistakes that people often make with rapid cognition such as false first impressions or judgments (194) or believing one person knows what another is thinking (197), convinced that the face and the expressions therein are “an equal partner in the emotional process” (208).
Gladwell offers a volume to help the reader understand the way people often think without thinking. He presents some compelling evidence from across a broad spectrum of events and situations as he makes his case for the merits and perils of the ‘blink’ — and succeeds at the task. His desire is to show how our ‘blink,’ or our initial reactions are far more accurate than most give credit for — yet they are not infallible. Gladwell comes from a journalistic background of dealing solely with research and observation of the contemporary issues in our society. He does not write this with any sort of evident Christian worldview, yet the preacher and pastor learn a great deal from this work! Preachers would do well to proclaim to their listeners the benefits and the costs of every doctrine and principle they preach.
Among the most noticeable strengths in this work is how easily readable this is. This work appeals to a wide cross-section of people regardless of their age or education. Gladwell’s flow of writing should be studied, mastered, and retooled each individual preacher desiring to communicate in an easily understandable way. Each of Gladwell’s chapter title catches the attention of the reader and fills them with great anticipation. Chapter titles such as “The Theory of Thin Slices” and “The Warren Harding Error” put rather difficult concepts of rapid cognition in an easily digestible package. Preachers who preach on such difficult concepts such as the doctrine of election, the Trinity, propitiation, justification, sanctification, redemption, etc., need to demonstrate Gladwell’s creativity in presenting these challenging doctrines that are conveyed using everyday, familiar, and easily-grasped pictures. Preachers have the greatest master of this type of teaching in our Lord Jesus Himself who continually used parables about everyday occurrences to convey a spiritual truth. The challenge is great, but the benefits are too numerous to ignore.
Aiding in this writing style, Gladwell included many engaging illustrations to support each of the claims he makes. The opening illustration in the Introduction with the art gallery ready to purchase the fake kouros provided that ‘hook’ that all too many authors fail to give. He provided many illustrations appealing to a wide range of tastes. Every preacher must learn this lesson. Gladwell clearly did his homework in finding examples and instances to support his theory of the ‘blink’ and his understanding of the merits and perils of rapid cognition.
For example, he draws illustrations from history and politics (“The Warren Harding Error”) (72). He draws also from the 1980’s culture (Coca Cola’s response to the Pepsi® Challenge taste tests) (155). He appeals to scientists and all who enjoy hard data in the scientific studies such as Gottman’s “Love Lab” (14) the red and blue deck of cards test from the University of Iowa (8). He even draws from the arena of sports (48-49), classical music and prejudice (245), and even war strategy (99). Gladwell’s ingeniously drew from all parts of our culture’s interests and history that makes great strides in appealing to a great cross-section of our society. Preachers desiring to communicate their God-given message must model what Gladwell demonstrates in using illustrations to retain the listener’s interest.
Gladwell’s work can also teach preachers much about prejudging those whom we come across. In Chapter Four (“The Warren Harding Error”), Gladwell shares about a car salesman whose high ability of rapid cognition helped him realize the old adage was true: “Never judge a book by its cover” (91). Whether a car salesman or a police officer who is wrongly suspicious of someone simply by their ‘look’ (191), or a woman trombonist whom the Munich Philharmonic conductor was convinced could not play with the needed strength (245), or a Japanese violinist believed to lack the emotive tools necessary to play European classical music (246-247) — Gladwell unwittingly teaches a biblical lesson from James 2:1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Preachers must treat not just fellow Christians but all people with the love of Christ and recall that they are made in God’s image with all types of backgrounds and baggage. Even preachers struggle with rapid cognition through their particular backgrounds, so it is crucial for them to understand the situation of each person before coming to particular conclusions.
With the strengths come weaknesses. Gladwell’s writing is quite good, yet he does not give any sort of cohesive thought to how we may trust in these ‘thin slices.’ What steps can one take? Is there any cogent theory on the matter? Gladwell would have done well to us the concluding chapter in this book to help tie the information he gave into one coherent, holistic theory of rapid cognition. Instead, he simply gives one more example of how reliable our rapid cognition can be if we but keep our prejudices and preconceptions out of the process.
After reading through this work twice, I would certainly convey and absorb its contents — yet given the nature of my calling as a pastor and some of the coarse language contained in this work, I would be hesitant to recommend reading this work for my parishioners to read. I would commend this work to mature pastors to demonstrate the power of illustration and the usefulness of making a passage of Scripture interesting, enlightening, and engaging.