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Book Review of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"

As many people know who read The Tipping Point,Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker is one of the most interesting and gifted writers around. A superb pattern-recognizer and storyteller, Gladwell adroitly elucidates important cross-cutting themes and memes within our midst. As a wise writer once said, a good book reads you just as much as you read it. Gladwell has a knack for writing about topics that do precisely that, whether it be helping us see more deeply into how social networks shape our world to how our brains shape us.

His book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Difference, for instance, turned the conventional wisdom of systemic change on its head. Instead of happening slowly and incrementally, which is how most change is perceived, Gladwell made a compelling case that change also happens quickly and unexpectedly -- and seemingly overnight whether it be fashion fads, the hit success of popular TV shows, or the rapid drop in crime in New York. He argued that "idea epidemics" could spread as fast and decisively as any physical one, which is an obvious and refreshing message for worldchangers, although not without some untoward implications as well.

Gladwell's most recent book, blink is also worth checking out because he picks another important meme: the implications of recent discoveries in the neurosciences and studies about how our brain works for daily life. Indeed, if I was to pick one game-changing discontinuity for the future, I would have to say it will most likely come from this space, especially any insight that enables us to dramatically increase our bandwidth for learning and memory -- something that a knowledge-intensive economy would eat up (and drive) like a hungry mob of microbes in a sewage dump. So watch this space closely.



Blink was inspired by a number of his articles archived on his website; in particular, The Naked Face which is an intriguing read about how people in law enforcement make life or death snap decisions. In a nutshell, the book highlights the role of our intuition and subconscious "rapid cognitive processes" in our decision-making, with examples that include everything from choosing our mates to making a strategic call in the battlefield. Again, Gladwell's aim is to challenge assumptions:

'We are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition,'' Gladwell observes. We assume that long, methodical investigation yields more reliable conclusions than a snap judgment. But in fact, ''decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.''

Well, sometimes. Therein lies the problem, as David Brooks highlights in a playfully balanced book review of Blink in the New York Times. This kind of "thin-slicing", a term Gladwell coins, is good only under certain conditions. In many conditions, "thick-slicing", the power of slower reflection is just as important and critically so. There are many situations where our impulses are just plain wrong. The trick is knowing the difference: when to trust your instincts and when not to. As anyone who has had flight training knows, this lesson becomes very clear. There are moments when your gut instincts can kill you: like when an aircraft stalls, to break out of it, the thing you need to do is point the nose down to the ground instead of pulling up which the reaction we naturally want to do.

In my work, I see this a lot with executives in industries and policy-makers in government agencies experiencing large systemic change, something we are seeing across the board these days (another tipping point of sorts which I won't digress about for now.) In these organizations, many of the "old hands" feel lost because their instincts -- the knowledge built up through years of experience -- is not a reliable guide to their decision-making. The good ones know that the future will not be the same as the past, requiring them to think "out of the box" and challenge their assumptions. This is hard because this involves a certain cognitive dissonance and discomfort, and often requires a retooling of capabilities, competencies and mindsets. And this is a process that doesn't happen overnight, despite the hope of some of these executives in search of quick fixes. Rather, this is something that can only unfold with slower reflection and iteration (heuristics designed to expand the zone of proximal development, to use learning theory jargon).

If only certain world leaders would similarly engage in this kind of deeper reflection -- a slowing down to go fast -- which is the best method to surface and test key assumptions! While we can't blame Gladwell for what people do with his ideas, I do fear that books like his will inadvertently help rationalize and support the irresponsible actions of leaders who justify their decisions by their "gut" feeling.

In a similar vein, I disagree with Gladwell that most people distrust instinctual responses. With the President of the United States as a prime example, I know too many people who rely on nothing but these primordial senses and are proud to do so. As much as I am an advocate of the "whole person" approach to problem-solving, one that honours all forms of intelligence and knowing, I also think we can't throw the baby of rationality out with the bath water. I think it's safe to say that the invention of dentistry, public sanitation, germ theory, and the fact that we no longer burn witches at the stake en masse (at least not in the physical sense) are all positive byproducts of the Age of Reason.

A longer view might help put this into perspective as well. For instance, paleo-neuroscientists, the folks who study how our brain has evolved over the past million years or so, argue that an instinct-driven way of being sufficed in an evolutionary time when we lived in smaller tribal groups with more localized and immediate challenges (like finding a safe way to hunt a wooly mammoth). But relying on instincts alone works less well -- as I've argued -- when we have to make decisions by interpreting a much richer array of information spanning different time and spatial scales (like managing an enduring and collective response to challenges like: global climate change, pandemics, or the massive reduction in arable land.) As any game explaining exponential change shows us (the lilly leaf doubling in growth on a pond is my favourite) this kind of thinking is counter-intuitive and hard to grasp without rationality, whether it be through a process of scientific reasoning or using tools like computing to figure things out. This doesn't mean there is no role for intuition, which is often just a form of pattern recognition, as Gladwell successfully argues. It's just that we need to compliment this with a more sophisticated form of problem-solving that knows when to use what tool and where, that can judiciously blend the right kinds of intelligences at the right level in space and time. It's not overstating things, I don't think, to say that our fate as a species might depend on this leap in cognitive ability and consciousness ( a preoccupying theme of mine, I know.) Namely, we need to find creative ways to make real and relevant to mass audiences the connections between the global in the local and the local in the global.

Getting back to Blink, the book is definitely worth reading. Like all of Gladwell's fascinating pieces, it is written exceedingly well with delightful and memorable stories. But Brooks' main critique is right. There is no theory, no grounding to Gladwell's thesis, unlike The Tipping Point which had a proto-theory of change that showed how his "idea epidemics" spread through social networks within a matrix of key actors with catchy names ("connectors", "mavens" and "salesmen"). This kind of framework is missing, but will likely come from other writers seeking to cover these burgeoning ideas in the cognitive science space.

Indeed, stepping back from Blink, Brooks points out something even more important:

'Blink'' is part of a wave of books on brain function that are sweeping over us as we learn more about the action inside our own heads. This literature is going to have a powerful effect on our culture, maybe as powerful as the effect Freudianism had on our grandparents' time (the last time somebody tried to explain the brain's backstage process).

We should be a little wary of surrendering this field to the scientists. Philosophers ranging from Vico to Michael Oakeshott to Isaiah Berlin were writing about thin-slicing (which they called ''wisdom'') long before the scientists started picking apart our neurons, and long before psychologists started showing people snippets of videotape. And much of what they observe is more profound than anything you can capture with some ginned-up control group test in a psychology lab.

Having some distance to see how these memes are affecting our worldview -- our resource allocation, our policy-making, our choice of tools and techniques -- would be an important thing for sure. Remember how Darwin's ideas got skewed and perverted into social darwinism --the"survival of the fittest" doctrine -- which Darwin himself discredited as being simplified and incomplete, but nonetheless was such a compelling explanatory framework for Victorian society at the time that it stuck and is regrettably still with us, dominating economic and political policy-making and right-wing projects. We wouldn't want the same thing to happen with the next wave of frameworks coming out of the cognitive sciences.

So how do we prevent this from happening again? What kind of wise commentary and sense-making can we turn to? Any candidates come to mind? I can think of few intellectuals who can overcome the barriers to entry (that is, mastering all of the knowledge across relevant fields) to get beyond the surface of popular reporting and guide us into deeper epistemological insight. This is a worry, a key limitation of the present, as science outstrips the public's ability to engage with its' discoveries. Perhaps someone needs to take Gregory Bateson's "Ecology of the Mind" approach the next step? He advocated an architecture of problem solving: a way of reflecting on reflecting, a way to upframe how we are thinking about thinking so that we can get this distance and see the forest through the trees, and perceive how certain memes are influencing discourse and discovery in a systemic way. Indeed, in a protean postmodern sense, it would be rather appropriate to have a kind of meta-analysis about how we're analyzing our brain, about how we're making sense of the discoveries about cognition. In this spirit, I look forward to seeing more of this kind of meta-framing work about the implications of this revolution in cognitive sciences; and worldchangers, please forward and filter the best of what we have right now. Because these amazing developments, when explained well, simply delight those neurons of mine, both rapid and slow.

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I suspect that when it comes to brain science, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Expect to see consultants and self-help gurus a-plenty grabbing on to the thinnest slices of scientific fact to sell their services.

That said, I suspect that in a few decades, when the brain science actually lets us truly understand the mind -- something which we can't currently do -- I expect the results to be revolutionary for individuals and deeply disturbing to the social order. I also expect that it is equally as likely that understanding the mind will make us profoundly less happy than actually more happy...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Jan 05

'I expect the results to be revolutionary for individuals and deeply disturbing to the social order. I also expect that it is equally as likely that understanding the mind will make us profoundly less happy than actually more happy...'

Ever watch 'Ghost in the Shell' (either movie)? I think you'd find it very agreeable to this point of view. Highly recommended if you have the time.

Posted by: Bolo on 24 Jan 05

Thank you for the review and recommendation. I am adding both Blink and The Tipping Point to my reading list.

Posted by: Troy Worman on 24 Jan 05

I think you're right that information doesn't always mean bliss, with lots of unintended consequences worth understanding better. A while back I did a Future of Healthcare project, and we played out the implications of bioreaders -- say, any biomedical device that could tell us what was going on in real time in our bodies, which is going to come eventually (put aside our ability to interpret the information for now.) Playing this out, we discovered that while this information may be good in the fullest of time (think Star Trek) in the short term many more people would go absolutely neurotic with this kind of data flow. Especially if say it was hooked up to your cell phone! I can see drive through clinics already so we can top up on neurotransmitter enhancing booster drinks. Starbucks should really look into this :)

As a related tangent, In the New Yorker, I just read a review of a biography on Francis Galton, the father of eugentics and modern statistics. It's a nice link between the past, present and future debates around controlling our own evolution, and shows just how wrong one can be -- even innovator's like Galton.

Thanks for the movie recommendation. It's hard to get access to these in Paris, but there is one place I can go to.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 25 Jan 05

Has Gladwell's work been peer-reviewed in any academic or scientific journals?

These are not the sole arbiter of authority, but until I read a second opinion or a controlled study or two, I'm not much inclined to rely on his findings.

Posted by: John on 25 Jan 05

That would be a good thing to check out. Thanks for raising this. To be honest, I don't know. Does anyone? My guess is that bits and pieces have been peer reviewed. Herein is the problem with a popular book based on anecdotes and no testable theory. As we all know, the plural of anecdotes does not mean data.

But if the past is a guide, I know his social network theory stuff was critiqued by academics, and in some cases, rightly so.

Having said that, I think it's better to get things imprecisely right than precisely wrong. With Tipping Point, his cumulative message was right I believe. The nagging question is how do we make these qualitative judgments. It's slippery. And if I'm honest, I have to say "gut feeling" might come into play :) But perhaps that's the role of fora like these?

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 25 Jan 05

well, if 'happy' described the narrow-minded, ultra-medicated, socially unaware, hyper-consumerist, resource-hogging, eco-unconscious, planet-threatening, fundamentalist, long-distance power-mongering, corporation-supporting, 'reality' tv-watching
cross-section of the first and second 'worlds' (global class systems), then perhaps there's more hope for awareness and change.
contentment in complacency, soporific, apolitical denial of personal responsibility for more than one's security and wherewithal is ostrich-like.

great article, thanks nicole!

Posted by: Michael Dunkley on 30 Jan 05



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