A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a train, and I felt something brush against my leg. At first, I thought it was merely an accidental brush, the kind of irritation that public transport regularly affords its sufferers. But it happened again after I moved a little distance from the man sitting next to me, and again after I had put a hand’s span between us. I was sure that it wasn’t a mistake, that the man had gotten his jollies from touching me even though I didn’t want him to, and I took a long and glaring look at him. Once he realised I was on to his disgusting game, he sprinted off the train at the next station. I was grossed out and indignant, and I was determined to report the incident to the police.
At the police station, the officer asked me if I would be willing to assist an artist to put an Identikit image together. I thought I could recall his face pretty clearly, so I agreed. At first, the artist showed me some pictures of men who fit the profile I’d briefly described, but I knew for certain that my assailant hadn’t been any of the men pictured. Then, the artist began to ask me about individual facial features: what did his eyes look like? His nose? His mouth? As I opened my mouth to describe the man’s face, I felt my recall of his face melt away in my mind. I was utterly bewildered. What had happened to my memory?
Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is a book about what Gladwell calls ‘rapid cognition’, and how it is often more powerful and useful than extended thought processes. Gladwell is a bestselling author known for his obsessive interest in and ability to identify particular universal cathexes. In Outliers, he attempted to make less ‘crude’ our understanding of how people become ‘so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August’. The Tipping Point was the result of a fascination with ‘the sudden drop in crime in New York City – and that fascination grew to an interest in the whole idea of epidemics and epidemic processes’.
As mentioned above, in Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, the first of Gladwell’s books I have read – Gladwell’s project is to explain how we make snap decisions, and that first impressions can be better than the ones we cultivate after long thought. Who wouldn’t find that fascinating? Though we, as humans, pride ourselves on our capacity for logical thought, there is something seductive about the idea that we are naturally preternatural, that our brains are so disposed to correct decision making that we don’t need time to improve our decisions.
In order to illustrate his thesis, Gladwell kicks the book off with a real-life story about a kouros, or Greek statue of a nude male, acquired by California’s J. Paul Getty museum. The Getty inquired after the bona fides of the statue, comparing its features with other examples from the age, checking out the identity of the art dealer and inviting a geologist to ascertain the age of the materials used in the artwork. Satisfied with the authenticity of the kouros, the museum agreed to acquire it. However, when the Getty’s curator mentioned this while unveiling the statue for Evelyn Harrison, an expert on Greek sculpture, Harrison said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ How did she know what other experts couldn’t – that the statue was a fake?
Although the statue example is arguably as much a cautionary tale as a paean to the capacity of the human mind to make accurate decisions in a short time – just ask more experts next time, Getty! – it’s a great example that sets instinctive reactions against long processes. Of course, it’s not as simple as just this dichotomy, and in Blink, Gladwell also investigates a few different elements of swift decision making processes, including their vulnerability to error. One example of this vulnerability is what Gladwell calls ‘the Warren Harding error’, named after ‘one of the worst presidents in American history’. How was he elected? ‘Why, the son of a bitch looks like a senator’. That is, Gladwell claims, we all have biases that are unacknowledged and difficult to dislodge, including unconscious biases for people who are tall, for instance, or biases against minorities or women. In addition, as with Harrison’s ‘instinctive’ reaction to the statue, training can enhance the snap decisions we are able to make through honing in on the important information and discarding the dross.
Gladwell is talented at picking vividly illustrative examples and studies to support his points, though the book occasionally assumes an authority that it is perhaps too bare bones to really deserve. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Blink was so popular because it’s so accessible, and so pedagogical – I walked away from this book with a strong feeling of having learned something without having done much work. The insight earned from reading this book, however, is not illusory, and is often immediately awarded, because decision making is so integral to everyday experience for most of us. For instance, while reading the section about creating successful structure for spontaneous decisions, I quickly designated the ‘brain melt’ I experienced at the police station as the result of ‘verbal shadowing’, which occurs when the left hemisphere – which thinks in words – displaces the visual memories collected in the right hemisphere. This explains the ‘lucky’ and timely decisions we sometimes make based on visual information without having kicked off a verbal thought process, such as in Blink‘s case of a fireman who ordered everyone out of a building seconds before the floor of a building ignited.
Our brains are magnificent organs, and while they sometimes fail us, they often fizz and pop away without our having any conception of how they work. But just as we can learn by storing facts and details, we can turn our thinking faculties upon the very part of us that enable us to do those things. Blink is a wonderfully narrative-driven exploration of a particular set of the brain’s strange but beneficial functions. But while Blink does much to explain the seemingly mysterious process of correct and swift decision making, it does not make that process less interesting; rather, it replaces the sense that some of us are special or have a sixth sense, with a healthful dose of that old medicine, ‘knowledge is power’.