Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blink:The Power of Thinking without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. Inspired by a personal experience--being stopped by the police because his hair resembled that of a serial rapist--he brings together research and historical and contemporary anecdotal evidence in utterly unexpected ways. Who, for example, would think to compare studies of how autistic and nonautistic people view the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? with the performance of police officers under stress (the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo to be specific)?  He then uses all of this information to explain a complex phenomenon in a way that is understandable to the non-genius reader.

In Blink, his focus is on rapid cognition--the thinking that takes place subconsciously and extremely fast (in the "blink" of an eye). Gladwell's research demonstrates that rapid cognition--he also calls it "thin-slicing"--is powerful, sometimes in negative ways. Subconscious racial or gender stereotyping illustrate this notion. Rapid cognition can also be subverted through stress or time pressure, as evidenced by the case of the police officers who suffer a "temporary autism." 

On the other hand, rapid cognitions based on deep knowledge and study can be more effective than extremely logical decisions based on a surfeit of information. To illustrate this point, Gladwell draws on the work of marriage therapists who can predict whether a couple will divorce from watching a brief interaction between the two, psychologists who have studied micro facial expressions and can "see" what people are thinking in a way other observers cannot, military tacticians, and emergency room physicians diagnosing heart attacks. In all of these cases, thin slicing based on deep knowledge is a more effective way to make a decision than gathering and analyzing more and more information. 

Knowing when to use rapid cognition and when to rely on more measured and logical decision-making is important, as is not allowing our thin-slicing to be disrupted by stress and time pressure. When we understand the gift of instinctive decision making, Gladwell would say, we should be responsible enough to use the gift wisely. 

My description of the book does not do it justice--READ IT!!

Favorite passage:
The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.

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