16.5.09

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review

(I am, of course, late to the table here, but as my interests lie in the realm of social cognition and Outliers is on my New Year's reading list...)

Blink is Malcolm Gladwell’s second foray into full length non-fiction. His first The Tipping Point became a NY Times bestseller, and Blink followed in short order after its release. Blink promises the reader a deeper understanding of the process of rapid cognition, or how people come to make decisions “in the blink of an eye,” relying on unconscious mental processes of which they are not even aware. To bolster the science of Blink and make it more accessible to the lay reader, Gladwell incorporates a wide range of anecdotes, from scientific research to everyday business and cultural case studies.

One doesn’t have to be Einstein to read and enjoy Blink. Gladwell’s writing is lean, and the prose is entertaining. He kept this reader turning the page long after the discussion of cognitive science had lost its allure. The pace of the book is fast, action-packed, and this is both a strength and a weakness of Gladwell’s. Here, we see the author’s day work as a writer for The New Yorker surfacing, as Gladwell romps from one topic – with sometimes two or three anecdotes to support it – to the next. It’s a breathless ride, leaving the reader little opportunity to catch his breath, a problem not typically encountered with magazine articles.

This is an engaging story in that scratch-the-silver-from-the-lottery-ticket fashion. Blink’s allure is largely superficial. There are a number of inconsistencies in Gladwell’s account of what he refers to in the introduction as “the adaptive unconscious,” a term he defines from cognitive psychology and then abandons for the remainder of the book. What begins with a series of strong anecdotes in the introduction and first chapter falls apart by the second half of the book. Gladwell purports to illustrate the concept of “functional frugality” (the unconscious cuing the conscious to what’s what) with continued research and case studies, but the anecdotes in the latter portion of the book, on inspection, seem to argue against this concept. 

In one memorable instance, the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by four New City police officers in 1999 is discussed as a case of rapid cognition gone wrong. For entertainment value, I give Gladwell two thumbs up here. Yet, I wonder if the savvy reader would be left at the end of this account – as I was – with the sense of So what? Where’s the rest of the story? Had Gladwell taken Diallo’s case one step further, had the research been one level deeper, the reader would have understood that this is not, in fact, a case of rapid cognition gone wrong. The New York City police officers, operating under classic principles of rapid cognition made errors that were entirely explainable. (It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error for a reason and is so well known I was appalled to see the story end where it did.)

Perhaps the most egregious of errors in Blink is Gladwell’s casual handling of his central tenet. The “adaptive unconscious” is a relatively new term in cognitive psychology, but its purpose, “functional frugality,” has been discussed for going on two decades under the more common term “the cognitive miser.” Both assume an evolved mechanism, which Gladwell briefly mentions in the introduction and to which, again, he does not return. This is problematic on its own. However, it becomes more so in light of research he presents to illustrate how different the unconscious is from the conscious mind, how we do not always know precisely that which we think we know. Using a speed-dating example, Gladwell demonstrates that what people claim they want in a potential partner is not what they end up liking in the people they choose through a speed-dating service. This is demonstrated through the use of ratings of different adjectives on a checklist. Comparing the adjectives for “what I said I wanted” to “what I like about the person I picked,” Gladwell seems to point and say, “Ah ha! See, the unconscious says something very different than what the conscious says.” Only it doesn’t. From an evolutionary perspective, from the adaptive perspective Gladwell abandoned, there was no disagreement. Blink lacks cohesion and an author who fully understands his science.

For someone interested in understanding how we think about things (sometimes) without really thinking about them, Blink is a pleasurable read. It is not the simplest of books to push through, as the pace is a bit fast and the research dense at times. The research anecdotes are varied, however, and the case studies are interesting and cover a range of topics. The Cook County Hospital and Millennium Challenge case studies were particularly enjoyable. For readers who are interested in truly understanding rapid cognition, I would not recommend Blink. Gladwell would have done much better to write a book based on standard attribution theory and cognitive miserly-ness than attempt the account of an adaptive unconscious to which he was clearly uncommitted.

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