Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

Reviewed by: 
Malcolm Gladwell
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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The “information age” and the increased use of computers in business has made it possible for us to monitor and analyse a vast amount of what goes on in organisational life; so much so that some people appear to have become fixated on information to the exclusion of what might be termed “instinct”.

For example, a few years ago I visited a friend of mine who have become MD of a large and well-known UK retailer.  With glee, he showed me a report that was about a centimetre thick which contained all of the previous day’s sales – “It’s amazing” he said, “I get this at 9am every morning”.  He then went on to tell me the percentage market share they had in certain markets, the turnover and the margin.  One of the markets they were doing particularly well in surprised me so I asked why they were doing so well.  He had to admit that he didn’t know.  “How will you know what to do then if the business starts to decline?” I asked. 

The point is that data is very interesting, but it is simply a record of the past.  Since decision-making is about the future, it requires something more than an analysis of past events.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink” he looks at the decisions that people make in an instant, without thinking, and finds that many of these decisions are as good and in some cases better than decisions that take much longer to make.
In the early part of the book Gladwell described how in 1983 an art dealer approached the Getty Museum in California with a rare marble statue dating back to the 6ct Century BC.  The asking price was just under $10m.  The Getty museum agreed to take the statue on loan to conduct tests to establish its authenticity.  After 14 months of tests conducted by some of the world’s foremost experts they bought the statue.  However, in the following months the statue was shown to a number of other people, some of who instinctively felt that something was “wrong” with the statue.  They didn’t know why but felt that it was not genuine.  As future events revealed, the statue was indeed a fake.

The objective of the book is therefore to establish what it was that enabled these people to recognise that something was wrong after seeing the statue for only a few seconds, that the team at the Getty failed to notice in 14 months of research.
The book goes on to explain the theory of “thin slicing” - the way in which humans can make accurate and good decisions based on very small amounts of information.  Indeed, in some cases, people make better decision based on limited information than they do based on more.

Gladwell argues that in our brains there is a powerful backstage process, which works its will subconsciously.  Through this process we have the capacity to sift through huge amounts of information, blend data, isolate telling details and come to astonishingly rapid conclusions.  

''We are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition,'' Gladwell observes.  We assume that long, methodical investigation yields more reliable conclusions than a snap judgment. But in fact, ''decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.''

To substantiate this claim, Gladwell refers to several scientific studies that show how the results of careful and lengthy analysis can compare with the results of “thin slicing”.  In one such example a psychologist named Nalini Ambady gave students three 10-second soundless videotapes of a teacher lecturing.  Then she asked the students to rate the teacher.

Their ratings matched the ratings from students who had taken the teacher's course for an entire term.  Then she cut the videotape back to just two seconds and showed it to a new group.  The ratings still matched those of the students who'd sat through the entire term.

Because Gladwell’s book is making a particular point it does not endeavour to balance the validity of thin-slicing with the more in-depth analysis of thick-slicing, which we know can be better at predicting all sorts of things from weather patterns to mortality rates.  Nor does he attempt to provide any rules as to where thin-slicing might provide a better approach to decision-making. 

In conclusion, Blink will be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in the subject of decision making or the workings of the human brain.  For everyone else, it provides a valuable reminder that our instinct and intuition provide us with valuable information that should be taken just as seriously as the more intellectual and cognitively processed information.

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