Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

By Malcolm Gladwell. New
York: Little Brown, 2005. Hardcover, 277 pages.

When I attended a concert by the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra last week, I was able to appreciate the performance and the female concertmaster even more, because I had read Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Here, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the recent revolution in the classical music world which, until thirty years ago, was a world of white men because auditions supported the "fact" that women lacked the strength, lips, lung capacity, and hands to play like men. Conductors and concertmasters even believed that, with their eyes closed, they could tell the difference between a male or female at an audition. Changes introduced by unionized musicians included the use of screens between the committee and the person auditioning. Thereafter, the number of women musicians hired increased dramatically.

Judging music, like other taste tests, is not that simple. "We don't know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don't always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious," Gladwell observes. For example, if you "looked" at a short female horn player before you really "listened" to her, what you saw would contradict any power you would hear in her playing.

A second lesson is that "if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, we can control rapid cognition." In other words, by learning to pay attention to the first two seconds of a situation or activity, we can avoid making mistakes and actually arrive at a more authentic outcome. In this instance, "by fixing the first impression at the heart of the audition-by judging purely on the basis of ability-orchestras now hire better musicians, and better musicians mean better music ... arrived at by paying attention to the first two seconds of the audition."

Applying this suggestion is what the author calls "thin-slicing." This is the artful skill of looking at the smallest amount of information possible, valuable because "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately."

Blink is filled with other intriguing stories and analyses. Gladwell tells about the ER physician who "thin-sliced" past the information overload of many tests and focused on a few selected factors to determine, correctly, if patients had had a heart attack. He recounts mistakes made by people who kept their best intuitive decisions at bay, either by too much thinking or ingrained prejudices, or strict adherence to doing something "by the book." Gladwell studies the shadow side of cognition where "less" enables style to win over real content, as in the election of Warren G. Harding because he was "a great-looking President."

I agree with the lady reading Blink across from me on the plane. "I'm enjoying it. It is causing me to think about things in a very different way."


January/February 2007