Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

This book felt a bit schizophrenic.  On the one hand, Gladwell’s thesis is that split-second decisions can be surprisingly accurate; on the other, he must acknowledge they can be infected with fatal errors and deep analysis is required to understand why and how that happens.

Everyone has had exeriences that validate the power of the “blink” – on the most prosaic level, rethinking your answers on a multiple choice test almost always hurts your score.  And we make important decisions, about where to go to college, who to date, which job to take, primarily on gut feelings based on relatively little input. Those decisions usually work out pretty well, but they fail often enough to keep us wary of our first impressions.

At that point, Gladwell’s thesis falls apart and becomes just  a statement of fact: sometimes first impressions are really powerful, but sometimes they’re wrong.  His detours into profiles of people with extremely good or extremely poor “thin-slice” decision-making are interesting, but a bit shallow.  His examples of good decision-makng both reveal that there’s nothing instantaneous about them and neglect potential criticisms. For example, Gladwell focuses a lot on John Gottman’s videos of couples discussing an issue in their relationship – Gottman claims he can determine the long-term success of the marriage from just a few minutes of footage.  There are a few obvious issues with this scenario – the analysis actually takes quite a period of time, by trained coders writing down what they see in each second, so while after years of practice they might be able to do the analysis in real time, it’s not really an example of rapid decision-making.  Also, Gladwell fails to mention that other researchers have not been able to replicate Gottman’s work.  Here’s a study that found women’s initiation of criticism and men’s hostility to criticism did not have measurable impacts on relationship outcomes, contrary to Gottman’s conclusions.  While examining your relationship style is valuable, if the thin-slice focuses on the wrong behaviours, it’s potentially dangerous.  A longer term or more in depth therapy might pick up on the couple being fine with a fairly confrontational arguing style, but suffering from other corrosive attitudes.

The concept of training one’s thin-slice perception is also undermined by Gladwell’s presentation of the many ways we cannot retrain ourselves – even though he is half-Jamaican, he, like most Americans, records a preference for white faces on the Project Implicit test.  It’s almost impossible to override that preference and score more evenly on the test (I heard about this several years ago and gave it a try then – I had no luck in forcing myself to an even score).  Gladwell also presents the example of a tennis coach who can predict double-faults, but cannot figure out what he’s seeing, so there’s no way for another person to learn to see what he sees.

While the book was entertaining, it ultimately failed to cohere (perhaps because it seemed to have been compiled from Gladwell’s articles elsewhere – I had read about microexpressions in his piece in the New Yorker in 2002).  I didn’t walk away knowing when to trust my first impressions or how to retrain them or how to shape others first impressions of me (other than to be tall and good-looking if I want to be president).

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