The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 265 pp.   ISBN 0-316-17232-4


Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point.  Blink is about snap judgments.  It draws upon a considerable amount of obscure research and includes fascinating illustrative examples. 


The J. Paul Getty Museum was about to purchase an almost perfectly preserved sculpture.  Scientific experiments had indicated it was authentic.  However, several experts recognized it as a fake in one glance.  (8)


Our brain uses two very different strategies to make sense of situations.  One is thinking about what we’ve learned.  The other operates almost immediately, below the surface of consciousness.  (10) Whenever we are faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use the latter. (12) 


“A person watching a two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.” (13)


There are moments when our snap judgments and first impressions offer much better sense than deliberate thinking.  Decisions may be every bit as good as those made deliberately and cautiously.  (14)


“Our unconscious is a powerful force.  But it’s fallible.”  So when should we trust our instincts?  The book attempts to answer this question and also to convince us that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated.  (15)


“‘Thin-slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” (23)


Any relationship between two people has a distinctive signature, an identifiable and stable pattern.  Predicting divorce is pattern recognition.  Four important criteria indicating trouble are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.  Contempt is the most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.  Contempt is any statement made from a higher level.  Often it is an insult.  It’s trying to put the other person on a lower plane.  Contempt is so powerful it can affect the immune system, increasing the frequency of colds.  Disgust and contempt are about completely rejecting someone from the community.  (29-33)


“Judging people’s personalities is a really good example of how surprisingly effective thin-slicing can be.” (34)


Doctors who are well liked are not sued.  Doctors who “talk down” to people are.  The likelihood of a doctor being sued can be predicted by simply listening to snippets of conversations with patients.  The condescending or dominant tone of voice is a good predictor.  So when the doctor doesn’t seem to listen to you, or talks down to you, you have “thin-sliced him and found him wanting.” (41-43)


“Thin-slicing is...a central part of what it means to be human.” (43)


Snap judgments are both extremely quick and unconscious.  They rely on the thinnest slices of experience. (50)  When we try to analyze our snap judgments, we often come up with explanation for things we don’t really have an explanation for.  Therefore we need to be careful in how we interpret such explanations.  Sometimes an explanation really isn’t possible.  (69-70)


Thin-slicing is possible because we have the ability to get below the surface of situations very quickly.  (75)  But sometimes we make snap judgments without getting below the surface.  Snap judgments are sometimes rooted in prejudice and discrimination.  They may lead us astray.  (76)  Our attitudes toward things like race or gender operate on both our conscious, chosen attitudes and our immediate, automatic associations. (84)


“Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.”  We must change our life so that we are exposed, on a regular basis, to experiences that give us positive impressions.  (97)  [This may support the practical value of beginning each day with inspirational reading. dlm]


“Improvisation comedy is wonderful example of the kind of thinking that Blink is about.  It involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind of script or plot.”  But it isn’t random and chaotic at all.  It is an art form governed by a series of rules.  “How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.” (113-14)


In war (or simulated war), commanders often allow their field leaders to make snap decisions.  It clearly has its risks, but “allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly ... enables rapid cognition.” (118-19)


[In problem solving situations] “extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful.  It confuses the issues.  What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.” (137)


Doctors must be meticulous in talking to patients and listening to them.  There are a lot of social and psychological aspects to medicine that physicians don’t pay enough attention to.  A doctor has to understand the patient as a person.  Empathy and respect are important.  Good decision-making requires a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.  But also, frugality matters. (Brendan Reilly, head of Cook County Hospital in Chicago) (140-41)


“We can learn a lot more abut what people think by observing their body language or facial expressions or looking at their bookshelves and the pictures on their walls than by asking them directly.” (155)


“Most of us don’t make a distinction – on an unconscious level – between the package and the product.  The product is the package and the product combined.” (160)  [Which partially explains why Warren Harding was elected President and “New Coke” failed.]


“We tested Seven-Up.  We had several versions, and what we found is that if you add fifteen percent more yellow to the green on the package – if you take this green and add more yellow – what people report is that the taste experience has a lot more lime or lemon flavor.” (163) The package for almost every food has been experimented with to optimize the “taste” of the product to the customer!


“Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can’t look inside that room.  But with experience we become expert at using our behavior and our training to interpret – and decode – what lies behind our snap judgments and first impressions.”  “All experts do this, either formally or informally.” (183)


“Perhaps the most common – and the most important – forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and the impressions we form of other people.  Every waking minute that we are in the presence of someone, we come up with a constant stream of predictions and inferences about what that person is thinking and feeling.”  “When we meet someone new, we often pick up on subtle signals....” (194)


“Mind-reading failures happen to all of us.  They lie at the root of countless arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.  And yet, because these failures are so instantaneous and so mysterious, we don’t really know how to understand them.” (196)


“Eckman recalled the first time he saw Bill Clinton....  There was this expression that’s one of his favorites.  It’s that hand-in-the-cookie-jar, love-me-Mommy-because-I’m-a-rascal look.” (205)


“The face is an enormously rich source of information about emotion.”  “In a certain sense, it is what is going on inside our mind.” (206)


Researchers have found that if you force yourself to make an angry or sad face for a while, you will feel angry or sad!  Which seems to indicate that if you make yourself smile, you can actually help yourself feel more cheerful.  “Emotion can also start on the face.  The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings.  It is an equal partner in the emotional process.” (208)


“Whenever we experience a basic emotion, that emotion is automatically expressed by the muscles of the face.  That response may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second or be detectable only if electrical sensors are attached to the face.  But it’s always there.” (210)  “There is enough accessible information on a face to make everyday mind reading possible.” (213)


Our powers of thin-slicing and snap judgments are extraordinary. (233) 


But even the giant computer in our unconscious needs a moment to do its work.” When there is insufficient time, we make mistakes, like a policeman who, in an instant, misinterprets what he sees, feels threatened, and shoots an innocent person. (233)


“We are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition.  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.” (252)


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