Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

And if this book were an episode of Sesame Street, it would be brought to you by the letter "C" - for Confusing.

I made a conscious decision to include non-fiction in my reading. Usually, non-fiction is much more difficult and time-consuming for me to read than most fiction. This work, however, was easy to read through quickly - in fact, it was what you might call a page-turner. Again, usually, I turn my nose up to page-turners in fiction, but apparently it is a characteristic I appreciate in non-fiction.

This is like a brief snippet of a certain aspect of social theory or psychology for the layperson - the snap decision, or judgement. What might be called "gut" instinct. What I'll take from the title and call blink-thinking.

Where it gets confusing is in trying to determine 1) what, exactly, blink-thinking is - absence of the use of information, or use of data and experience to inform what seems to be simply an intuitive conclusion and 2) whether or not blink-thinking is a good thing or bad.

First, Gladwell seems to show that blink-thinking, instead of relying on snap judgements, seems to rely simply on a different kind of information - information below the surface.

Once he sets this up, he seems (notice my continued use of "seems" in this review) to go straight into citing several examples of times when the wrong decision has been made based upon inferior info (biggest, most effective example - racism).

At this point in the book, it seemed that Gladwell was suggesting that the proper, recommended way to blink-think is to analyze, but not get overwhelmed or bogged down in the analysis, data, information, research, etc. - don't "drown in the data." Simplify. At some point you have to pick up your gun and start firing based upon (informed) instinct (Gladwell spends a good portion of his text telling the story of a general in the military). Gladwell writes, "When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance." The phrase "Just do it" comes to mind, which is serendipitous because that is exactly what I've been thinking lately whilst trying to drag myself out of procrastination - always for me one of the remaining dregs of depression.

Gladwell spends a good portion of the book demonstrating how marketing manipulates our snap judgements, or subconscious decision-making, through, for one thing, packaging. I would think, or hope, that all of us are aware of this by now, so that passage wasn't particularly enlightening, though the details and specific stories were very interesting. In fact, I should mention here, that the story-telling feel of this novel did lend very well to the fast-paced, easy read status of this book which helped it, for me, so much. In fact, back there I almost just typed "novel" instead of "book," which is telling something (subconscious?).

Ultimately, the point is taken that effective, accurate, valuable "snap" judgements or blink-thinking aren't necessarily made from lack of or limited information, but from effective, accurate, valuable information that has slipped into our subconscious so as to feel like intuition; if we would only trust ourselves to access it. Of course, this means we must be careful of the information we take in and make sure that it is effective, accurate, valuable. For example, Gladwell suggests that an effective way to remove the snap judgement of racism would be to purposely and significantly expose ourselves to influential, positive, affirming individuals from the African-American community, or any other culture. We "build a database in our subconscious." "Taking our powers of rapid cognition ["blink-thinking"] seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious."

At one point, the book gets to sound a little snobby when it is suggested that only experts with all the background information loaded into the subconscious are able to make accurate instinctive decisions. But when I think about it, I see how this could be true - for example, as I've mentioned more than once, I have a degree in English and what seems to be a resulting appreciation for more meaty literature. Then there are other, more casual readers who have a distaste for it, choosing instead more pulpy fiction. Which of us is better able to pick out the quality writing of any given fiction text? Then again, perhaps there are rabid, avid pulp fiction readers with degrees in English, or without, that could prove me wrong.

In any case, Gladwell has a lot of valid and well-illustrated points - so well in fact that they seem more like common sense rather than theory. Informing, enlightening and interesting. - 4 stars


hamilcar barca said...

For example, Gladwell suggests that an effective way to remove the snap judgement of racism would be to purposely and significantly expose ourselves to influential, positive, affirming individuals from the African-American community, or any other culture.

i'm a tad bit leery of this. oh, it will work initially, but deep down, you'll know you did some cherry-picking. and the first time you meet someone from that other culture/race who doesn't measure up to your cherry-picked list, the whole database might crumble.

Amber said...

good point. I don't think Gladwell has a bad idea here, but it probably wouldn't work to root out deep-seated, almost subconscious racism; you're absolutely right.

hamilcar barca said...

you've hit the nail on the head - racism, like homophobia, is not a snap judgment on the individual's part. it's deep-rooted, and is only overcome when one recognizes that skin-color and/or sexual-orientation doesn't define the person.

we are not born racist and homophobic. it is instilled in us in a persistent and pernicious way by certain elements of society. we become racist and homopphobic either due to peer-pressure, or because as kids, we are taught to respect and adopt the views of "society". we don't break that hold until we face our own ugliness and until we realize that people of other races, cultures, and lifestyles are neither superior or inferior to us. they may be different, but not in any meaningful way.

okay, i'll get off my soapbox now.