Reading Response to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is a popular science book published in 2005.  The subject is the ‘human adaptive unconscious’, which is the cognitive phenomenon behind quick, frequent and automatic processes in the mind.  Gladwell’s central thesis is that our minds can make fairly accurate judgments, without consuming much time and information.  Gladwell goes on to present several supporting evidence to back up his thesis.  These include verifiable cases from the domains of gambling, speed dating, strategy video games and malpractice suits.  And I have to admit that most of them are quite convincing.

Gladwell describes the phenomena as ‘thin-slicing’, which humans employ most of the time as a way of de-cluttering the mind from the abundance of information available to it.  According to Gladwell’s thesis, ‘thin-slicing’ is as good a strategy (if not better) than comprehensive analysis of an occurrence/situation.  Hence, spontaneous decisions tend to be as good as deliberate, thought out ones.  Gladwell presents numerous examples from the fields of marketing, medicine, science and popular music to illustrate his point.

On the nature of human decision making, Gladwell notes,

“Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way. I think that approach is a mistake, and if we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgements. We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that — sometimes — we’re better off that way.” (Gladwell, 2005)

What convinced me about Gladwell’s thesis is his choice of examples.  The decision of a fire lieutenant in Cleveland to order his men out of an un-abating fire (on the basis of an extra-sensory perception of danger) is one of many persuasive cases the author presents.  This decision saved their lives, as the floor on which they were dousing fire collapsed within a few seconds of the decision to recall personnel.  The case of dubious originality of the statue Getty Kouros is another classic example, where experts ‘sensed’ from their very first sighting something fishy about the work’s authenticity.  Another example that stuck in my mind is that of marriage expert John Gottman, who can make largely accurate predictions on the durability of marriages by simply watching the couple speak for an hour.

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