Anant Jain

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Book Review

Blink is Malcolm Gladwell’s second book, and I’m glad I finally got around to it earlier last month. I heard it on Audible after putting it off for many years and bought a paperback last week since it receives a more thorough re-read.

Borrowing Daniel Kahneman’s notation from Thinking, Fast and Slow (review), this book is a more in-depth discussion of our brain’s System 1: the fast, automatic, intuitive, subconscious part. If you’ve read Kahneman’s masterpiece, you will enjoy connecting examples in this book to what you already know about the System 1. Here are my top takeaways from it:


Thin-slicing is “our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion.” The central theme that repeatedly emerges in the book is the idea that spontaneous decisions are often as good as, and at times, even better than carefully considered ones.

The book opens with the story of Getty kouros, an over-life-sized Greek sculpture that surfaced out of nowhere in 1985. Before purchasing, Getty museum ran multiple tests on the stone of the statue to verify its age and authenticity. These tests dated the statue to 530 B.C., as expected. However, during this year-long testing, some art historians who visited the statue expressed their doubts within mere seconds of taking a look at the figure — but they couldn’t point out anything definitive that proved it was a fake. Thus, the Getty museum decided to go ahead with the ill-fated $10 million purchase: a subsequent demonstration of an artificial means of creating the de-dolomitization observed on the stone prompted Getty to revise their opinion of the work. The museum’s label now reads “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery”.

Another example: psychologist John Gottman showed that he could predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple would still be married fifteen years later simply by analyzing an hour of their conversation. But more impressively, the accuracy stayed reasonably impressive even if he cut down the observation time to just 3 minutes. Apparently, “the truth of a marriage can be understood in a much shorter time than anyone ever imagined!”

During World War II, the Allied radio interceptors came up with descriptions of the fists and styles of individual German operators’ morse code — they got so good at it that they could literally follow the radio operators around Europe. This was extraordinary information for deciphering the positions of the German military units and what they were doing.

As with most things in psychology, these stories are incredible. It’s easy to prime-and-fool our System 1, and our conscious mind is pretty good at making up stories to explain away our unconscious choices.

The Warren Harding Error

This section is about the dark side of thin-slicing: our first impressions lead us to make bad decisions, even when we’re aware about it. Warren Harding, one of the worst US presidents ever (at least pre-2016), led supporters to assume he’d be a good president just because he appeared stately and presidential.

Consider this: “Researchers who analyzed the data from four large research studies that had followed thousands of people from birth to childhood calculated that when corrected for such variables as age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. If you take this over a 30-year career and compound it, we’re talking about a tall person enjoying literally thousands of dollars of earnings advantage.”

Height is just one of our implicit biases. This section introduced me to the IAT or the Implicit Association Test, a short 10-minute test which measures your inherent biases. We don’t have much control over these implicit biases — they are majorly a function of our conditioning. We’re all implicitly biased, some of us to a larger extent than others. I strongly urge you to take the Race IAT right after reading this post — it’s short and the results are usually fun.

Creating Structure for Spontaneity

Spontaneity lets us come across solutions that we otherwise may have never formulated on our own. A key lesson from this section is that we can create a structure for spontaneity. A good example is improv comedy. The humor arises entirely out of how steadfastly the participants adhere to the rule that no suggestion can be denied. You proceed by agreeing with, and then building on your partner’s ideas. It’s well summed up in the phrase “Yes, and…”

Use screens to filter irrelevant information

It’s not hard to identify scenarios where our gut tends to be wrong. Cook County Hospital, which ran on a shoestring budget, enrolled help from the cardiologist Lee Goldman to come up with a decision tree that would take much of the guesswork out of treating chest pain — to quickly, and accurately determine whether the patient is going through a heart attack.

We can improve our decision making by formulating flowcharts and algorithms for situations where we know our first impressions will lead us astray.

New and different is always vulnerable to market research

Examples from across music (rock musician Kenna), furniture design (Aeron chair) and beverage design (Pepsi vs. Coke) show us how our first impressions and our preferences don’t have much to do with the actual product. For instance, according to multiple studies, ice cream out of a cylindrical box conclusively tastes better than ice cream from a cuboidal one! “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.

Here’s something fun for you to try next time you meet a person strongly opinionated about either Pepsi or Coke: do a triangle test. Ask them to taste three cups of the colas, two of which are the same and see if they can tell which two of the three are the same. The Degree-of-Difference (DOD) is a scientific measure to determine how different two things taste. The DOD between the two colas is so close that if a 1000 people try this test, only a third would guess right — which is not much better than just guessing!

The Delicate Art of Mind Reading

Paul Ekman, a psychologist who created the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), claims that a lot of “thin slicing” can be done within seconds by unconsciously analyzing a person’s fleeting look called a microexpression. This section dived deep into the FACS and microexpressions. See a 90-second analysis below:

“Ekman claims that the face is a rich source of what is going on inside our mind and although many facial expressions can be made voluntarily, our faces are also dictated by an involuntary system that automatically expresses our emotions.”

Listening with Your Eyes

The last chapter wraps up the two lessons of Blink with the example of how symphony orchestras started recruiting women only after they began conducting auditions with the musician behind a screen. It’s critical to remember that

  • we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition…
  • … but, when confronted with our prejudices, we should take steps to control the environment in which this rapid cognition takes place, and thus control the rapid cognition.

Thanks for reading this blog! Next Sunday, we have Gladwell’s third book: Outliers that came out in 2008.

This is #22 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site. You can read rest of them here.

Photo by Samuel Zeller