The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
How It Affects the Individual
The Way We Should Work to Better Ourselves and Our World
In Blink, Gladwell discusses the dangers of using intuition too rapidly, specifically in the context of rash police actions. This is especially relevant recently in light of recent events such as the beating of a horse thief in California and the fatal shooting in Oklahoma. Gladwell actually discusses both of these things in the book - The fatal shooting, in which the man instinctively reached for his gun instead of taser, could be explained in the light of several different concepts in the book. For example, the theory of subconscious racism could have caused the man to fear for his life more than he might’ve otherwise done had he been pursuing a white man, and as such, in the heat of the fight-or-flight response, he reached for the weapon that better matched his level of threat — the gun.
The other case is an example of how Gladwell claimed that police typically make the most mistakes after a chase once they stop relying on their intuition. After leading the police on a relatively low-speed chase in which he stole a horse and was unsuccessfully tasered, a man was beaten brutally by almost 10 deputies. The police had performed their functions perfectly well during the chase, but once they finally apprehended the man their judgment failed, resulting in the beating and multiple suspensions.
The social value of this book is significant in that it explains how many people are not aware of their own motivations or subconscious decisions. Many people dismiss gut feelings as inaccurate or invalid, but the conclusion of Blink’s analysis is that many would be better off on a personal level if they were simply able to follow their instinct occasionally.
However, also discussed is the flip-side of this concept. People must also be aware that their preconceptions or first impressions can have severe negative effects on their social interactions. The same thought processes that give us strong intuition also give us prejudice and stereotypes. Therefore, while it is important to utilize the power of subconscious decisions to strengthen one’s own intuition, it is equally important to restrain that power when it drives us to unfairly treat or categorize others.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink asks the reader to consider the ramifications of subconscious snap decisions — what Gladwell calls “thin slicing.” Thin slicing is the focus of this book, and refers to our subconscious ability to detect patterns and make decisions in day-to-day interactions based on nothing but a thin slice of exposure to those interactions. This subconscious process has the ability to tell the difference between a real statue and a fake, predict if a relationship will last, or even save lives.
The text begins by presenting an incredibly rare statue of a Greek man from the sixth century BCE that was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Museum officials were suspicious of the statue at first, but eventually decided to finalize the purchase. Once the statue was on display, experts began to express doubt about its authenticity. These experts had a gut feeling that something was wrong about the statue as soon as they saw it, though most had trouble putting that feeling into words. They were thin slicing the statue subconsciously, and did not like the gut feeling the statue gave them. Further testing revealed that the statue had been artificially aged by a process involving soaking the marble in potato mold. The statue is still on display, but is categorized as a “possible modern forgery.”
Gladwell continues to observe how the use of thin slicing can have an almost ESP-like effect on situations. By thin slicing a married couple’s conversation for 15 minutes, one can guess with 90% accuracy whether the marriage will endure the future. He recalls the tale of a fireman who thin sliced a house fire, felt that something was off, and evacuated his crew just before the floor below them collapsed. Then Gladwell shows off the dark side of thin slicing, such as how people can use their gut instincts too much and end up in a bad situation. When President Warren Harding was elected, American citizens simply looked at the man and said “Now there’s a president.” Yes, Harding had an appearance that one could only describe as presidential. He won the 1920 election in a landslide, and proceeded to head a presidency plagued by scandal. The American public thin sliced and lost.
The text itself was captivating for the first few chapters. Gladwell’s narration of the scientific research behind thin slicing intrigues the reader, but soon loses its zeal. Examples of thin slicing are thrown at the reader with less excitement as the book drags on, and after a while the only visual the reader receives from the text is that of a dead horse being beaten. Gladwell certainly gets the point across quickly, but perhaps he should have stopped writing after the first few chapters.
A potential reader should consider this book as a potential read due to one element alone: the author’s message. Gladwell creates an ethical tension in which you question if you yourself are affected by the throes of racism, sexism, or other prejudice in our society. Blink does more than preach the gospel of equality — it makes the reader question his or her own values, both conscious and subconscious.
Malcolm Gladwell writes that thin slicing can have a significant impact on our social lives, and whether that impact is positive or negative is up to the reader. By recognizing negative subconscious assumptions, one has the ability to suppress them. On the other hand, one has the ability to reinforce positive thin slicing with further practice in analyzing situations and conditioning one’s self to react positively to said situations.