Review of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell

Note: This book is reviewed by my husband Jim.

My reaction to Gladwell’s Blink is similar to my wife’s reaction to his earlier book, Outliers – Gladwell is willing to twist the facts of any situation to fit into his hypotheses. However in Blink, the basic hypothesis – that split-second judgments are usually trustworthy – seems even more unsupported, if that is possible.

Gladwell writes about a part of the brain (but I think he means mind) called the “adaptive unconscious,” which sometimes allows us to make snap decisions “every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” He cites the example of the Getty Museum’s purchase of what appeared to be an ancient Greek kouros (a sculpture of a nude male) for almost $10 million. The Getty hired geologists, archeologists, and lawyers to study the statue with sophisticated electronic equipment. They concluded that the statue was indeed old, and so probably authentic. Several Greek art historians, however, saw the statue as a fake at first glance because it didn’t “look right.” They were unable to articulate precisely what was “not right,” but their instincts proved to be correct. From these facts, Gladwell concludes that the instincts or adaptive unconscious made a better decision than careful analysis.

I think there was a more obvious explanation. The rational analysis by the Getty people was made by people who did not know much about kouri, and all their testing and analysis did not edify them enough to make a sound judgment. The snap judgments of the Greek art historians were made by people who knew a lot about the subject matter, and didn’t need the extensive electronic tests to come to a reasonable conclusion—they could tell a fake simply because of how the statute “looked.” Gladwell was comparing the snap judgments of experts with the analytical choices of tyros.

Gladwell makes the same error, even more egregiously, in his next example.

There, he shows that John Gottman of the University of Washington needs only a one hour interview with a married couple to predict (with 95% accuracy) whether their marriage will last fifteen years. Non-experts, viewing or participating in the same interview, make very poor predictions, no matter how much analysis they put into effort. It turns out that Gottman is not even using his instinct. Instead, he believes he has learned from interviewing more than 3,000 married couples that a very reliable predictor is how much “contempt” they show for one another. [Whether or not Gottman can actually do what he claims is another issue—after all, it requires a 15 year wait to determine whether the couple will still be married in 15 years. Gladwell never questions the accuracy of Gottman’s predictions.] Gottman is not using his adaptive unconscious; he is merely applying his theory of “contempt.”

John Gottman

Gladwell makes another error in confusing ostensibly complex problems with genuinely complex ones. For example, he cites the problem of predicting which physicians are likely to be sued (note, the issue is who gets sued, not who is negligent). All kinds of analysis can be done on a physician’s training, specialty, background, and temperament, none of which information proves to be a good predictor of whether he will be sued. So, is this a very complex problem? No. It turns out that the vast majority of physicians who get sued are those whose patients just don’t like them. The more empathetic a physician is, the less likely she is to be sued. Thus what looked like a very complex analysis turns out to be fairly simple. Our instincts work well on this problem not because it is complex, but because it is rather simple. The problem of predicting whether a physician will be negligent, on the other hand, is difficult, and our instincts do not do a good job predicting that.

Gladwell also confuses instinct with an inability or unwillingness to articulate in language a complex thought pattern. He says that George Soros and Jack Welch often relied on their “gut” for important decisions. That may be true, but it is also likely that they just don’t bother to articulate their entire thought processes.

Malcolm Gladwell

One might also question wiping out years of experience by labeling it “instinct.” Vic Braden, the tennis guru, claims he can predict with great accuracy when a touring pro is about to commit a double fault on his serve. Gladwell does nothing to test whether he is correct, but Braden probably can predict double faults much better than you or I could. This just shows that experts know more about their fields than non-experts, not that their instinct is a better predictor than careful analysis.

Gladwell does perform a valuable service in showing how our innate prejudices affect decision-making, and how those prejudices can be manipulated without our being conscious of the manipulation. I think, however, that he exaggerates the efficacy of that manipulation.

In reading Blink, I was frequently irritated by Gladwell’s failure to make important distinctions—it seems he was always comparing “apples with oranges.” For example, he says he is disturbed with how much more likely blacks are to be arrested and convicted of crimes than whites are. He says, “I’m not talking here about racial differences in overall crime rates. What I’m talking about is this: if, for example, a white man and a black man are charged with the identical drug-related crime, the black man is far more likely…to go to jail.” But the statistics he cites in support of his thesis are nothing but the differences in rates of incarceration in the public at large, not among those charged with the same crimes! So the reader is left with no way of judging how much of the difference comes from greater use of drugs among blacks (if any), and how much from the difference in treatment in the courts.

Blink concludes with a suggestion that something should be done in the legal system to reduce or eliminate racial prejudice, obviously a laudatory goal. His proposed method is to prevent jurors from seeing the race of the witnesses. However, in an earlier chapter, he demonstrated how important it was to view subtle changes is facial expression to determine whether a speaker was telling the truth or lying! Perhaps Gladwell values the elimination of racial prejudice above assessing the truthfulness of witnesses. Or perhaps he just forgot what he had written in the previous chapter.

Evaluation: There is no doubt Gladwell knows how to write a book with “curb appeal.” That is, it looks great at first glance, until you start to analyze his methodology and conclusions. There is certainly much merit in popularizing science, but what Gladwell relies upon is not science: his arguments are specious; his inferences are spurious; and his bruiting of himself as an authority in the social sciences helps spread the fallacious notion that if A and B occur together, one is the cause of the other. In short, his subtitle (“The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”) is extremely apt.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2005


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17 Responses to Review of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell

  1. caite says:

    you make some excellent points! It seems this is a very popular book but perhaps one built on a deeply flawed set of assumptions.

  2. Julie P. says:

    I still haven’t read a Gladwell book but I’m curious about all of the fuss.

  3. King Rat says:

    That pretty much matches what i thought of the book when i read it a couple years ago.

  4. Jenny says:

    I’ve enjoyed several of Gladwell’s columns in The New Yorker, but it often does strike me that he’s more interested in being Surprising than in providing critical, well-reasoned arguments to back up his points. It’s a shame, because he writes very well.

  5. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like one incredibly messy book. I love books that popularise science, but I hate ones that completely mess up that little detail called methodology with just about the same intensity 😛

  6. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, you’ve made me re-think my evaluation of What the Dog Saw. Excellent review.

  7. Margot says:

    A – ha, now I see why my son gave me this book a few weeks ago. We have this on-going debate about making decisions based on instinct and, in particular, feminine intuition. So, now what I see is that my son wants me to read this book and then use it as proof for my arguments. Then he will logically come back with the same examples you have just given and my theories will be down the drain. Hmmm.

    I guess I should thank you for the face saving service you have provided me here. You’ve also given me something else to think about and that’s the “not articulating their entire thought process.” I think I need to do a better job of defihing what I mean by making decisions based on instinct.

    Thanks for a good discussion of this book and the subject.

  8. Sandy says:

    Huh. So Jill, you didn’t like Outliers either? I just loved that book, and was completely taken in with it. Maybe I’m a little too gullible? This is really a great review, because it makes me think I should second-guess this stuff!

  9. Holy cow…I’m so overwhelmed with every point that you made. I may have to read this review again just so that it can soak in….What an excellent and thought provoking review. I’ve never had the desire to read his books and now even less!!! I really got a kick out of the image you used!!!

  10. diane says:

    I liked Outliers by this author, but not this book! It just did not work for me that well.

  11. Eva says:

    I really didn’t like Blink when I read it, so this post made me deeply happy. 😀 Next, will you skewer Thomas Friedman? Please?

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    My husband had read several of his books and liketo share his new knowledge with me. I seem to respond negatively and the points made in this review are probably the reason why.

  13. Alyce says:

    I haven’t read Outliers or Blink, but they were on my list to read soon. I have recently listened to the audio books of The Tipping Point and What the Dog Saw, and the latter is my favorite so far.

  14. Rita K says:

    I was planning to give Blink a try. I may still start it, as I borrowed it electronically from my local library, but your comment “his arguments are specious; his inferences are spurious; and his bruiting of himself as an authority in the social sciences helps spread the fallacious notion —” makes me think I should not waste any of my commuting time on it. Thanks. And I just love your language here!

  15. Jenners says:

    Great review. I’ve been meaning to try one this author’s books because you hear about them ALL THE TIME. I’m one of those “non-critical” thinkers that would probably just accept what Gladwell said without thinking too hard about it. So I’m glad I read your review … it makes sense.

    I would love to see the Freakonomics authors get their hands on his examples though.

  16. Luke says:

    Thank you for this review your thoughts have forced me to take a second look at how I view information rationally…

  17. It is a fair point of view however I think you misunderstood some bits of information form which you base some arguments:
    First of all, Gladwell never said Goldmann can literally predict the life of a relationship in an hour. Goldmann does predictions with the information he gathers in an hour of conversation. Gladwell clearly explains the relationship between the extensive analysis that Goldmann does and the unconscious analysis (both “thin-slicing”), which I guess might have originated a confusion.
    Second, I didn’t understand the first argument about the kourus. There is no “more obvious explanation”. The “more obvious explanation” does not exclude the first one, it completes it, and as a matter of fact, it is presented in this way in the book.
    And third, I think the way in which he expresses in the afterwords is meant to me more ambigous which is a common literary resource and I personally did not take it too seriously.

    I do not intend to defend this book but I feel it is overestimated and that leads to some disapointments. I do feel it is an interesting book. I think it is a shame it misses valuable data. I think it is incomplete and ambigous but it is a book written for the common public and does not seem to intend to be otherwise. It is only a book which intends to open our minds to a different perspective.

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