Saturday, August 05, 2006

Blink: The Nonsense of "Thinking Without Thinking"

As my regular readers know, no muse better inspires me to find Time For This than the large scale suspension of thought. For example, I have ranted about Creationism, alternative health scams, and bullshit products. Today’s plea for logic is yet another book review of an allegedly non-fiction bestseller (now the longest-running title on the NY Times list). Malcom Gladwell's "Blink" attacks reason itself, threatening to sap our collective intelligence for years to come. I confess I did pay for this book, but hopefully I can save some of you the frustration, time, and $26 that it cost me. Sorry if I’m too late.

In the pursuit of serendipity (which is arguably an oxymoron, but also my day job), I often supplement my reading list with books collected on shopping sprees through Kepler’s Bookstore. So stacked near the cash register, Gladwell’s book caught my eye on a day I was pre-disposed toward impulse purchases. Having heard many references to the book (e.g. Brad’s reading list), I grabbed it before a second Blink of the eye.

The book's premise is that experts can make instant decisions--synthesizing inputs and knowledge into intuitions that yield better results than long, painstaking, thoughtful analysis. So if you want to be an expert, learn to trust your instincts. Always go with gut feel.

Gladwell backs up his fortune cookie thesis with a smorgasbord of anecdotes that are anything but consistent. Sometimes the subject clearly, consciously understands the elements of the decision (e.g a military commander), and sometimes not (e.g. art dealers wary of fraud). Some happen literally in the blink of an eye (e.g. the tennis coach who can sense a bad serve coming), while others take 150 blinks (e.g. the marriage therapist who plays Let's Guess Who Will Get Divorced). Many are simply lucky guesses validated by time, like the ravings of any psychic who inevitably hits paydirt. And based on Blink, you'd think no one has ever guessed wrong.

One counterexample would be my hasty decision to buy this book. Had I blinked enough times to at least judge this book by its cover, I'd have evaluated the full title, "BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." Of course, logic dictates that for any X, "The Power of X Without X" is nil. As usual, the Power of Thinking With Thinking (please excuse the redundancy) would have served me better.

Rather than enumerate every problem with this book (Who Has Time For This?), I can simply refer to Univ. of Chicago Professor Richard Posner's in-depth review in New Republic, which concludes:
...these literatures demonstrate the importance of unconscious cognition, but their findings are obscured rather than elucidated by Gladwell's parade of poorly understood yarns. He wants to tell stories rather than to analyze a phenomenon. He tells them well enough, if you can stand the style. (Blink is written like a book intended for people who do not read books.)
Do you really want your doctor making instant decisions based on first impressions? What about the structural engineer of your home, your child's school teacher, your pension fund manager or your nation's President? My own sickening gut feel is that the man whose finger is on The Button has read Blink (or at least looked at the pictures). Apparently, Stephen Colbert agrees, as he observed in his speech to the National Press Club Dinner about President Bush:
We're not so different, he and I...We're not some brainiacs on the Nerd Patrol. We're not members of the Factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That's where the truth lies--right here in the gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now I know some of you are going to say "I did look it up and that's not true." That's because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut.
Now I hate to always be a spoilsport, so here's an alternate book for your summer reading list: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore (which Brad also reviews here). Moore authored such classics as Island of the Sequined Love Nun and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff (indisputably Moore's best work). Excerpt:
"Why do you call this dog Mohammed?" asked the bearded man.
"Because that's his name."
"You should not have called this dog Mohammed."
"I didn't call the dog Mohammed," Charlie said. "His name was Mohammed when I got him. It was on his collar."
"It is blasphemy to call a dog Mohammed."
"I tried calling him something else but he doesn't listen. Watch. Steve, bite this man's leg? See, nothing. Spot, bite off this man's leg. Nothing. I might as well be speaking Farsi. You see where I'm going with this?"
"Well, I have named my dog Jesus. How do you feel about that?"
"Well, then I'm sorry, I didn't realize you'd lost your dog."
"I have not lost my dog."
"Really? I saw these flyers all over town with 'Have You Found Jesus?' on them. It must be another dog named Jesus. Was there a reward? A reward helps, you know." Charlie noted that more and more lately, he had a hard time resisting the urge to fuck with people, especially when they insisted on behaving like idiots.

Like Blink, A Dirty Job is fictional, and it's a dollar cheaper.

Blogged with Flock


  1. I find that 90% of business books are terrible and rely heavily on ad hoc examples rather than attempting to build theories. If you really want to rot your brain try reading business books on viral marketing, PR or blogging.

  2. Andy,
    Yes I have--first at Yeshiva from 1st through 12th grade (long, painstaking) and then at Harvard (thoughtful).

  3. Andy,
    Genesis combines myths clearly borrowed from Phoenicians, Cananites, Zoroastrianists, Egyptians, Sumerians and other contemporary tribes. The remainder is a "dramatized version" of history that grew into a "cult classic". Much of it seems barbarian today, but at the time it was downright radical, suggesting women's rights, slaves' rights, and limits on the monarchy.

  4. Anonymous7:43 AM

    Ben's last sentence hits it. The book is fun and interesting and does not really try (and sure does not succeed) in proving that thinking without thinking always makes sense. The subtitle is just marketing. The content is just bite sized interesting stuff you probably don't get to read about elsewhere - like the New Yorker itself. Doesn't need to be consistent to be interesting. I enjoyed it (obviously) without seeing a need to buy into the thesis in the subtitle.
    John Nowaczyk.

  5. I can't think of a better quote from any book that has made me want to buy the book more. Thanks for the recommend.

  6. Anonymous5:55 PM

    I just bought a book at the airport titled "Think - Why Crucial Decisions Can't Be Made in the Blink of an Eye". From the flap: "Outraged by the downward spiral of American intellect and culture, Michael R. LeGault offers the flip side of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling phenomenon, Blink..."
    I have not started the book yet, but the concept appeals to me.

  7. OMG! I had to read the excerpt to my husband because I was laughing out loud. Thank you for introducing me to a new author. Christopher Moore is now on my reading list.

  8. Anonymous6:58 AM

    This book comes the category of business books in which the entire premise is covered in the first chapter with the rest filler. Gladwell's filler is better than most but not worth my time. Read the first chapter in the store and save a few bucks!

  9. Anonymous7:24 AM

    Gladwell is an excellent journalist but no scientist. He mixes different topics. There is an interesting Henry Mintzberg article about three decision styles (doing, seeing and thinking first).

    Apart from the stereotyping which is not really relevant, the book is mostly about expert decision-making (seeing first). Experts learn to distinguish patterns, so they *see* a situation and their guts tell them the correct decision because in their brain they have identified a matching pattern. This is the way firefighters, nurses, doctors etc. operate.

    Read Gary Klein's Sources of Power or The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work.

  10. You may be interested in a recent article from HBS Working Knowledge that stresses the advisability, particularly in complex and emotionally charged situations, of resisting "System 1" thinking and employing "System 2" thought. System 1 thinking appears to coincide with Blink style decision making.

    "System 1 thought describes our intuition: quick, automatic, effortless, and influenced by emotion. By comparison, System 2 thought is slower, more conscious, effortful, and logical."

    Excerpts from and a link to the article may be found at this post from my blog, Mediation Mindset

  11. Blink is one of those books which is structured like it is trying to proof a point, gets you to buy, and then rots on your shelf after the first 2 chapters (if you're looking for a point). It so cleverly targets the "Casual Intellectuals" market. Fun read for the stories though, good book for non-commital, 5-min reads because you can stop anywhere.

  12. Blink is one of those books which is structured like it is trying to proof a point, gets you to buy, and then rots on your shelf after the first 2 chapters (if you're looking for a point). It so cleverly targets the "Casual Intellectuals" market. Fun read for the stories though, good book for non-commital, 5-min reads because you can stop anywhere.

  13. Anonymous10:23 PM

    Did you catch Christopher Moore at Kepler's tonight (1/17/07)? If you didn't, he's going to be in the Bay Area for another day (I think), doing this book tour for "You Suck".

  14. Anonymous5:23 AM

    What do you do with all those anecdotes?? Such a waste of time and trees.

  15. I think with business people need to stop reading books and start having experience that is where you learn.

  16. I found your post today searching for more information on Gladwell's book as part of a research project. Thank you for the review as it has confirmed my suspicions; i.e. I intuited that Gladwell's book on intuition was not going to be that good and appreciate your rational deconstruction as it gives an even better foundation for my final judgment! I have noted you are also familiar with Sam Harris. I'm reading "End of Faith" at present as well as Patricia Churchland's "Neurophilosophy". The latter might also be of interest to you.

  17. There were some excellent examples in Blink. I'll admit I didn't agree with everything he wrote, but it was still an extremely insightful book.