Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

Back Bay, 2007 revised paperback reprint of 2005 original, 296 pages, C$19.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-316-01066-5

Quick!  What kind of book climbs up the bestseller-charts, earns more than a thousand user reviews on Amazon, gets people arguing back and forth about its relative value, spawns at least two book-length responses and becomes the darling of mid-level executives everywhere?  To be fair, that’s not a lot of information to go on, but if you’re guessing “pop-sociology vulgarization with some application to business”, then you’re in the right intuitive ballpark to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Six years after publication, there’s little about Blink that hasn’t already been discussed endlessly.  Its central premise, that some judgements are best made in split-seconds rather than careful consideration, is counterintuitive enough to earn initial interest.  After that, it’s Gladwell’s knack for readable prose that takes over: Readers are charmed by the mixture of anecdotes, selected studies, links between various disciplines and easily-digestible thought experiments.  Blink is a prime example of the mini-boom in pop-sociology books that followed the success of Freakonomics, their most significant virtue seemingly being in dispensing cocktail-chatter material to middle-blow readers.

There’s little doubt that the end result is engaging from a reader’s perspective.  Gladwell manages to explore uncanny pockets of knowledge in his effort to explore his subject, and so readers are given mini-primers on art history, music marketing, military war-gaming, marriage counselling and much more along the way.  There’s a deluge of factoids in Blink, but it feels manageable thanks to Gladwell’s journalistic instincts in presenting information clearly and frequently referring back to previous material.  Blink is a joy to read, and this ease certainly helps the reader become sympathetic to the book’s thesis.

After all, “blink” judgements are a particular instance of intuition, and it doesn’t take much to be fascinated by things nobody quite understands.  Nearly everyone has powerful intuitions about various things (many of them are rarely formally disproved) and yet few people can actually explain why they’ve been able to come to this conclusion.  Blink circles this subject and interrogates it from various angles, some of them even contradictory.

Gladwell doesn’t forget, for instance, that blink judgements can be wrong or lazy.  There’s a chapter on stereotypes and unexamined judgement that weakens the book’s thesis.  Gladwell also glosses over the relationship between expertise and intuition, or how some of the most powerful intuitions are product of years of experience, reactions, course correction and re-evaluation.   (Many of us are blink-experts in our own fields of work; Gladwell doesn’t insist on how intuition is not necessarily transferable across pockets of expertise.)

The relationship between unconscious decision-making and newer theories of the mind could have made for interesting material, especially when linked to practised expertise.  Isn’t the goal of practice to drive skills deep in the unconscious where they can be used without conscious interference?  Aren’t blink-judgements evidence for some of the most radical theory of consciousness portraying the conscious mind as a rubber-stamper of unconscious processes?

This, alas, takes us in territory that Gladwell is not interested in exploring.  (Heck, in the paperback afterword of the book, Gladwell admits that he deliberately refused to use the word “intuition” in the main body of the book.)  To anyone looking for a more ambitious thesis, Blink seems stuck at a basic level, delivering entertaining anecdotes without wrapping it up in a coherent theory.  Latter chapters seem to disprove the worth of blink-judgements, leaving the readers to wonder where this is leading.  It’s a fun book, but it quickly feels unsubstantial, even when compared to The Tipping Point.

This may server to explain why there are at least two book-length responses to Blink.  Michael LeGault Think! takes the relatively more orthodox view that thinking long and hard has its own merit.  But the most entertaining answer may very well be “Noah Tall”‘s Blank? The Power of not Thinking at All, a parody that overstays its welcome at 86 pages, but still pokes a few holes in the reverence with which some people still consider Blink.

But, hey, read the book and make up your mind… in three seconds or three days.

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