Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
reviewed by Rick Sidorowicz

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is a fascinating exploration of rapid cognition, the "thinking" that takes place within the "blink of an eye." At first glance you might want to think of rapid cognition as intuition or a "gut feel" - somewhat of an emotional perception, unconscious or perhaps irrational. The author makes the point that although it is unconscious, or perhaps subconscious - the "thin-slicing" rapid decision making is indeed very rational. In the author's words "It's thinking--it's just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with "thinking."

You might fear that a book about thinking, thinking about thinking, and then thinking without thinking, might just hurt your head a bit to get through. On the contrary, Blink is engaging and entertaining reading as a thread of very interesting stories, examples, experiences, research and insights. Gladwell so very accurately describes Blink as an "intellectual adventure story" - and it truly is a most mindful work that is stimulating, easy and fun to read. A few insights:

Thin-slicing

You do not have to pay attention to everything that is happening. We can often make sense of situations based on the "thinnest slice of experience." On the surface it can seem almost magical however, delve deeper and you will find the logic and rationale.

Gladwell tells the story of John Gottman, a psychologist and mathematician who by accounts can, after observing an hour of a couple talking, predict with 95% accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. After fifteen minutes of observation his accuracy will drop to 90%. Now a cynic might surmise that just about every couple will be divorced within fifteen years however, the analytical and cognitive process Gottman discovered were that marriages have distinctive "signatures" and there were a select few, and one dominant observable "drivers" that predicted the outcome. So far this story is interesting, but that's not the point of the story.

Attempts by marital therapists, graduate students in psychology, newlyweds and recently divorced faired no better than chance to predict the outcome based on the videotapes of couples. There were just so many things going on in the conversations, and so much to digest, absorb and process, that the pattern was difficult to discern. The point is that Gottman has found the very few select "indicators" (and one in particular) that predict performance. And to learn the one most important indicator is worth the price of the book itself.

Gladwell describes thin-slicing as unconsciously "sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what really matters." He makes the point that our unconscious does this very well, and often delivers a better answer than more deliberate ways of thinking.

In another lengthy example Gladwell relates the efforts of Lee Goldman, a cardiologist, to develop a more accurate predictor of heart attacks for emergency care centers, to take much of the "guesswork" out of treating chest pain. Goldman's ultimate decision tree of three key factors had a 95% success rate in diagnosis as compared to 75 to 89% for doctors using their traditional methods, that included a host of life style and related questions and examinations. The point of this story is that often, extra information just serves to confuse the issue, and is sometimes harmful. Too much information can compromise the accuracy of the diagnosis.

There are many interesting stories in the book and I was intrigued with Gladwell's account of New Coke. I think this story provides an excellent insight into how the best and brightest minds with the best research and fact based analysis can often bamboozle themselves into a most disastrous course of action.

We know the history - The Pepsi Challenge, Pepsi tastes better, Coke responds with New Coke and then kaboom.

  • Pepsi gaining market share
  • The Pepsi Challenge - the majority of tasters preferred Pepsi
  • Additional market research shows a preference for Pepsi - tastes must have changed
  • New Coke under development
  • New Coke - sweeter and more like Pepsi starts to perform better in taste tests
  • Launch New Coke
  • Major crisis launches the return of Classic Coke

In the author's words, "Coke has gone head to head with Pepsi with a product that taste tests say is inferior, and Coke is still the number one soft drink in the world. This story is a good illustration of how complicated it is to find out what people really think."

Gladwell's insights:

  • Taste tests don't tell the real story - there is always a bias for sweetness in a sip. (People knew that.)
  • Drinking a whole bottle or can is a more accurate comparison - sweetness can get overpowering. (People knew that as well.)
  • Home use tests over time will give you better information. (Most people knew that.)
  • The entire principle of a blind taste test was ridiculous - in the real world no one drinks Coca-Cola blind!
  • Pepsi's success in the blind taste tests never translated to much in the real world.
  • The error was in attributing the loss of market share to the product, as opposed to the good things Pepsi was doing with branding.
  • All of the unconscious associations and emotions we have of the brand, the image and the packaging were lost to "the guys in white lab coats."

There is so much more in Blink that I appreciate, including unconscious "micro expressions", the Facial Action Coding System, stereotyping and how that mind view can be altered, why tall men are often perceived as leaders, the downside of rapid cognition, the effect of stress and arousal, the tragic results of collective thinking and how one police officer in a car might just be a better thing.

It's an excellent book! Great work Malcolm! This is the best of the year for me so far!

Blink Blink:
The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown & Company
2005


Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

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