How did a bunch of art-history wonks instantly see something that trained scientists did not? How could they have been right when the evidence seemed to prove otherwise? Those questions lie at the heart of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.
As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell has written about counterintuitive phenomena in science, business and the arts. He has explored SUV drivers' high-above-the-road illusion of safety in the face of their vehicles' tendency to flip over. More recently, he has contested the notion that plagiarism is always a form of intellectual theft.
"Counterintuitive stories are of interest to people, and to journalists in particular," Gladwell tells the Pitch. "So many things in life seem simple, but once you dig a little, it becomes a lot more complex. That's my favorite thing in journalism, when suddenly the blacks and whites become grays."
Gladwell's previous book, The Tipping Point, showed how the tiniest changes can explain seismic shifts in such seemingly unrelated topics as crime rates, disease pandemics and fashion trends. In Blink, he sweats the small stuff all over again by examining our quickest unconscious thoughts.
Known as "thin slicing," these decision-making skills are a byproduct of our unconscious mind and its ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based only on limited patterns of experience. It's part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the "adaptive unconscious," the CPU-like part of the brain that is responsible for quick decisions.
One memorable example involves John Gottman, a University of Washington psychologist who has analyzed the conversations of married couples for almost two decades. Inside his Seattle-based "love lab," the professor watches 15 minutes of videotaped discussion and can then predict whether a couple will be married 15 years later. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. In fact, Gottman has become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he has concluded that marriages frequently hinge on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money and in-laws.)
Yet, for all its efficacy, rapid cognition can go awry. That's because of its tendency to reject all things that fall beyond our experience. Whether it's an innovative piece of furniture, an avant-garde musician or even a sitcom that tries something new, our adaptive unconscious tends to "thin slice" it into oblivion.
"When do you know that this kind of rapid cognition is helpful and when it's not? That's the tricky question," Gladwell says. "There's no surefire way of knowing. All you can do is take steps that will improve your chances of being right. This is a book about taking snap judgments seriously. It's not about how great snap decisions are. It's about how they can be wildly wrong and right and knowing what the difference is."