Friday, August 29, 2008

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Back Bay Books, 2007
Price: $15.99
ISBN-10: 0316010669
ISBN-13: 978-0316010665

Where does it all go, after you are done experiencing the experience, thinking the thought, feeling the feeling? Nothing is ever lost. The subconscious is like a vast warehouse, limitless, in fact, and as Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in Blink, we access all that is stored in that warehouse with every blinking and waking moment.

Usually, we call this instant access - gut instinct. Or, the inner voice of wisdom. Instinct, however, is nothing magical or mysterious. It is simply our accumulated and stored knowledge over a lifetime. If there was ever an argument for listening to those who have some serious and well-lived years under their belts, this is it. Blink illustrates with numerous and widely varied examples how life experience, the more the better, contributes to our ability to make quick, yet sound decisions. In fact, the quicker, the better.

Blink is about what the author calls "thin slicing." He defines this process as the moment of time in which we all make snap judgments. Two seconds, two minutes ... and we make an assessment of a situation or a person or a circumstance. The fascinating thing is - these snap judgments are, more often than not, precise ones. It is when we begin to over analyze and rationalize that we tend to go awry. The trick is to allow the accumulated wisdom rise up and do its magic, trust in it.

Then again ...

Gladwell never does make a concluding statement in his book, and perhaps it is up to the reader to decide (do it quickly?), but his many fascinating examples and his reports on various studies can lead one to think these snap judgments are the way to go - or, then again, thinker beware. For all the many situations in which that moment of initial wisdom is uncannily precise, there are other times that our deeply ingrained biases muck up the clarity of that process. Gladwell cites data to illustrate how stereotypes, for instance, persist - no matter how gallant our conscious efforts to overcome them. Telling yourself you don't really think what you think simply won't work. Only exposure to experiences, or positive visualizations, will change the false ideas and images our subconscious has absorbed over time. All of which is a strong argument for "garbage in, garbage out." That is, be careful of what entertainment you choose (e.g. pornographic images, violent movies or games, etc.), because no matter how hard your conscious mind tries to guide you toward decisions and behavior that is more appropriate, your subconscious will always, but always win out.

The idea of what you present to your eye is what you will later project out to the world is a convincing one, as the author finds himself unable to beat the test on stereotypes when he has to react quickly. Only exposure to more positive images over time can change his test results and dislodge his prejudices.

Gladwell discusses this phenomena of instant response-true response in a manner of ways. How patients respond to their doctors (we sue the physician who has a lousy bedside manner, even if more skilled, but remain loyal to the physician who spends as little as three extra minutes talking with us); how facial expressions, when viewed on slowed down video, will without fail, always reveal deceit (there are facial movements that arise from our subconscious that we cannot control, and no matter how quickly we think we have our facial mask in place, there is always that instant that our faces tell the truth); the intricacies of marketing and advertisement and why the obvious ad, even when based on feedback of focus groups, may not be the effective choice; how military decisions by experienced military leaders are successful, but fail miserably when they are constrained by strategic analysis; how micro-managing in workplaces can only lead to mediocrity while suppressing creativity and innovation; how speed dating may be most effective in finding potential lifelong connections (we read about research that can pick out successful, longterm relationships in observing as little as two minutes of interaction between a couple - and no, it isn't the couple that argues that breaks apart); how our societal subconscious biases for certain physical characteristics, such as height or gender, often mislead us to make dangerously faulty snap judgments (Gladwell observes that most of our leaders are tall and male, and that our corporate world pays tall men higher salaries, factoring dollars down to the inch, regardless of intelligence or ability). On and on, in one fascinating example and study after another, Gladwell intrigues with his findings.

And you know he's right. You know it ... in your gut. But if the author doesn't make any overall conclusion from all of this fascinating data, then the reader is left to her own wiles. Experience counts more than credentials. What we expose ourselves to on a regular basis molds who we are, how we view others, what choices we make and how we behave. Biases and prejudices are far stronger than our conscious will to overcome them; we must align our environment to align our subconscious. Our deepest self forgets nothing. All we have ever done and been and seen and observed leads to who we are today and tomorrow.

All of which gives one pause. But don't pause too long. It is that initial millisecond that may matter most of all.

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