Saturday, April 26, 2014

Blink, by Malcom Gladwell

Have you ever been walking down a street, and see someone ahead of you with a gait and/or body shape that you recognize immediately as a loved one or a good friend?  Honestly, this happens to me a lot.  I never gave it much thought until I read my latest book, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s ever since reading Outliers, so when I picked up Blink, I was interest in seeing what his theories on our cognitive thought process was, and I wasn’t disappointed.  

The main theme of Blink is the exploration of the human thought process, specifically trying to understanding what our initial reactions and thoughts are when confronted by certain situations, and how that first moment of confrontation (the first blink) impacts how we handle the situation.  

Using a whole host of case studies, Gladwell walks his readers through the reactions of experts when confronting new examples of their domain, and our reactions to unknown situations, to politics, to human emotions, and to race relations.  Using a wide brush, Gladwell pulls in a whole host of examples of his main thesis, which is that the human mind makes quick (really snap) judgments a thousand times a day, in a whole host of situations and, for the most part, these quick judgments are most likely the ones we should follow.  Our brains are characterized as a huge processing unit and, just like your home computer, it operates on two plains – the observable and the background.  While we can moderate the observable (such as deciding if we want to drink coffee or tea this morning), it’s the background processes that governs most of what we do (it makes us heat water for our tasty morning beverage, but it keeps us from touching the heating element).  

The snap judgments that we make throughout our day is actually happening in the background portion of our brains – that part of our consciousness tells us when to duck if something is flying at our face (I’m looking at you, pigeons), or that the person standing on the street corner asking for your credit card for a charity isn’t all that trustworthy, or your doctor is a dick who can’t take the time to walk you through your course of treatment.  All of this type of assessment happens in the back of our minds, and is then translated to the conscious part; you may decide that the person yelling duck is pranking you, or you support that charity so you’ll hand over you credit card happily, or your doctor went to Harvard so she knows what she’s talking about, and you ignore those snap judgments.  But when you get a pigeon in the face, or your identity is stolen, or your doctor leaves her Jag’s keys in you, you have no one to blame but yourself; you should have trusted that first blink’s worth of impressions.  And that’s Gladwell’s point – while in some situations, long, drawn out, rational though might be worthwhile, our initial responses shouldn’t be ignored, and should play a major part of our decision making.  

Some of the critics of Gladwell claim that his type of writing is a simplification of a whole host of psychological, biological, sociological, and a bunch of other ‘ologicals’ work into writing that is palatable for the masses; these critics dismiss Gladwell’s work for this reason.  But I tell those critics to stuff it.  I’m a fairly intelligent and highly educated individual that is interested in understand why and how the universe works, but I have no experience in reading and interpreting ‘ological’ studies and reports – I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to understand one if I ever tried.  So I appreciate Gladwell, which works collects these types of reports, synthesizes them, and draws out the larger conclusions they present as a whole, and makes them accessible to people like me.  To Gladwell’s critics, I invite you to try it.  I’ll bet you can’t, or at least, not as well as he can.

The only thing I wasn’t a fan of with this book was the lack of biological/historical explanation of this initial blink reaction that humans have.  While mentioned in passing once or twice, I think this ‘first blink’ reaction we have is a hold-over from our evolutionary phases where we had to decide if Urg from them neighbouring Grunt tribe was friendly, or if that tree branch would hold us while we slept, or if that cut on my sister Rung’s leg is likely to kill her, or if we should take her with us when we move on to our next hunting ground.  I think the ‘blink’ reactions we still have are a hold out of a time when snap judgments would likely keep up alive, and I don’t think Gladwell addresses this possibility with enough evidence for or against, he just brushes over it.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  There’s a lot of technical talk, but Gladwell makes it accessible to the average reader by relating it through case studies and examples.  The theories he presents are well explained and their role in his larger thesis is clear.  As always with a Gladwell work, subject matter that could be considered very dry and hard to read is made interesting and engaging, and so I would recommend Blink to everyone, along with his other works.

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