Blink by Malcolm Gladwell Book Review

When to Blink and When to Think? – Lessons from “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell

In today’s post I’ll share the most valuable insights I got from reading “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

But before diving in, I want to ask you a question: don’t you hate it when you want to have a hot water shower and you get a cold one? I know, I do too. 

Brrrr, I get the shivers even now, when I remember it. But, there’s a valuable intuition lesson hidden under this cold shower.

I have a little story about a tiny-cold-water-moment that lead me to ask powerful questions about intuition and knowledge that goes beyond the logical mind.

If you don’t have time and you’re eager to get to the “Blink” part just scroll down. But if you want to know more, grab a nice cup of tea, make your self comfortable and read on.

The Hot & Cold Showers and “Brush your teeth” story

Last summer I was in a 10 days meditation retreat in the Romanian mountains. The conditions were, let’s say, very basic in terms of showers and toilets.

We were sometimes spoiled with hot water that was sun-heated. Because it was unusually hot, the cold water was not thaaaat cold. So I would have a shower even when there was not enough hot water.

But I still wanted to enjoy the warm water, so I was trying to figure out the best time to hit the showers.

I thought that if I managed to get there among the first women in my group, I would be able to catch it more often. So one day I ate my lunch quickly and ran to the showers. Surprise, still no hot water.

Hmm, so my rational judgement and hurrying into the shower didn’t help, darn.

The next day I decided to not hurry at all and I was prepared for and at peace with the perspective of a cold water shower.

So I got there and as expected, there was no hot water. Oh well, I was expecting this, no problem. I finished my quick shower and I started drying myself. 

Then all of a sudden I had this powerful thought: “I should also brush my teeth”. Hmmm, this was right after lunch, and I usually brush my teeth in the morning and in the evening only. 

But the urge to do it was very strong. So I followed it and turned the shower on again.

After a few drops of water, surprise: hot water!

I smiled and thanked this inside voice that made me turn on the water again. So I was able to also wash my hair and enjoy the luxury of hot water.

Then I started wondering: where did that thought that made me brush my teeth in that particular moment came from? Was it just a pure coincidence? I don’t know.

A purely rational person would say that yes, it was just a coincindence. 

But I am not a purely rational person and I believe there is more to us than our logical reasoning.

So I chose to believe that this was the voice of my intuition

This is just one tiny example of how my intuition has been guiding me throughout my life. 

And I believe this is relevant because our lives are made out of millions of tiny moments like this one. 

And I can’t help wonder how many other millions of moments I discarded what this voice was telling me?

Because I was too caught up in my mind, or distracted by the outside world, or too caught up in my emotions or… whatever other reason.

So I started looking for what other people had to say about intuition and how it works.

I started reading books, and scientifical studies and research, trying to figure out how our body-brain-soul system functions and how I can better use it to live a happier and more meaningful life. 

“Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell is one of those books, that I’ve recently read. 

I read it with the intent to discover:

– insights about what makes a good decision maker

how intuition is involved in our decisions

– what is a good balance in between intuitive and rational cognition when making decisions

In the next part of this post I will share my findings with you. 

So even if you don’t have time to read the book you still get to learn something from it. Although, I encourage you to read it, it’s an awesome read. 

“Blink – The power of Thinking without Thinking”

“Blink” is about the moments when we know something without knowing why.

Like an art expert that sees a 10 million dollar sculpture and instantly knows it’s a fake.

Or a marriage analyst who knows within minutes if a couple will stay together over the years.

A fire fighter who senses something’s wrong and gets his team out a blazing building seconds before it colapses. 

I’ve been curious to discover how these moments are possible and how we can get better at “snap decision” making all my life.

Because from my own experience I’ve realised that I made a lot of “good” decisions in an instant and a lot of not so good ones following a torturous pros and cons process that has lasted from minutes to hours or even weeks.

Or I would spend almost two years in a job I didn’t like anymore before building up the courage to leave. 

Yeah, I know how it feels to be unable to decide one way or another.

I call this thing “chronic undecisivness”.

I wish I could take back the time and energy waisted in this process and use it for actually creating something and moving on.  

So because I know how much this can affect your life, I decided to help myself and others like me become better decision makers, saving time and enjoying our lives more. 

So, without further ado, let’s get to

The Most Important Lessons from “Blink”  

The vast majority of the stories or case studies that Gladwell shares in his book talk about what I call “the expert intuition”. I described the different types of intuition here. 

This is a superior type of “knowing without knowing why” that we get to after years and years of deliberate practice or experience in a certain field.

In the book we see the examples of the art expert, or the fire fighter, or the marriage analyst, or the experienced marine corps commander.

They are all capable of figuring out things in seconds that any unexperienced or novice would never be able to see. Even with the help of the latest technologies and scientifical research and instruments.

Their stories reveal this type of spontaneous kwowing that surpasses the rational, slower one. 

But there are also other examples of experiments made by researchers to assess our unconscious biases.

And this research showed that in many cases, our snap decisions are not accurate, and they lead us into making bad decisions. 

Like the example of Warren Harding, one of the presidents of the United States, in the begining of the 20th century.

Gladwell explains how this guy got elected because he looked and sounded like a good president. He only served for two years, and he’s been one of the worst presidents in the history of the USA.

So that’s one of the dark sides of “thin slicing”.

“Thin slicing” refers to our ability to make snap decisions based on a few aspects of the perceived reality.

And because our perceptions are influenced by our upbringing and our cultural environment we are not even aware of how biased our actions or conclusions sometimes are.

So this leads us to an important question: when should we rely on the intuitive insight, which in neuroscience is associated with System no. 1, and when should we use System no. 2, the rational, slower one?

On page 141, Gladwell says:

“Truly succesful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.” 

In the examples in the book, one is about a very succesful car salesman, named Bob Golomb.

This guy was very good because on one side he instinctively knew how to read his prospects and connect with them on a genuine, human level.

He immediately figured out if they were tired, confused, thirsty and addressed their emotions and needs before anything else. But he also knew how to resist his snap judgements that might have made him dismiss some of his clients, like a young teenager or someone dressed in farmer clothes.

He treated every single person like a viable client, no matter how they looked like. He knew from experience that the young teenager might be back with his parents the next day, or that the poor looking farmer might be richer than most of the elegant customers.

On the other hand, “deliberate thinking is a wonderful tool when we have the luxury of time, the help of a computer, and a clearly defined task, and the fruits of that type of cognition can set the stage for rapid cognition” (p 141)

And on the same page he continues:

“In good decision making, frugality matters.”

Getting overloaded with more and more information doesn’t help our decision making process, on the contrary.

“Less is more” is a proven principle for being able to make good decisions. 

The Jam Experiment in California

Out of the many examples, the experiment with the jam conducted by Sheena Iyengar in Menlo Park, California is very relevant. She arranged a tasting booth in an upscale grocery store. Sometimes the booth had 6 types of jams, other times there were 34 different types. 

Common economics sense would say that the more choice we have, the more we buy. The experiment proved a staggering difference in sales, in the favour of the 6 types of jams booth. 

Faced with too many options we feel paralysed and we prefer to postpone the decision. 

So in order to preserve our ability to make snap decisions we need to protect the frugality. 

In terms of finding that sweet spot between analytical and instinctive decision making, General Van Riper’s words, that Goleman quotes on page 143 are enlightening:

“When we talk about analytical versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance.”

Van Riper explains that all the rational thinking is very useful during preparation for a battle.

But when it comes to actually being on the battlefield, under gun fire, all the rational, “let’s talk about this to come to a conclusion” doesn’t make any sense. You need to make a snap decision, act upon it and move so you can survive. 

When to Blink and When to Think?

In the “Afterword” of the book, Gladwell adds some more valuable studies in the quest of finding an answer to this burning question: “when should we rely on instincts, and when should we use conscious thinking, like making pros and cons lists”?

And as much as I wanted to find a deffinitive answer, Gladwell is consistent to keeping a balance and a common sense. And I can’t not agree with him: 

“The truth is that this is not a question that I – or anyone else for that matter – can answer deffinitively. It’s just too complicated. The best we can do, I think, is try to puzzle out the right mix of conscious and unconscious analysis on a case-by-case basis.” (pg. 269)

The Cheap Department Store & The IKEA Experiment in Holland

Before reaching this conclusion he mentioned a studied made by a team of Dutch psychologists from the University of Amsterdam. 

In brief, in the first phase of the experiment, they asked people who have just come out of a Dutch department store that sells relatively cheap items, how much time have they reflected before making the purchase.

And after a few weeks, they called them to ask how happy they were with the things they bought. The results were like this: those who have spent time to deliberate before purchaising were happier than those who have made impulse buying. 

In the second phase they repeated the experiment at the furniture store IKEA, where people make more complicated and more expensive purchases. “Now the reverse was true. A few weeks later, the thinkers were least happy, and those who had gone with their gut instinct were the happiest.” (p. 268)

The researchers argued that their findings represent a fundamental principle of human cognition and that “there is no a priori reason to assume that it does not generalize to other types of choices – political, managerial, or other wise”. (p 268)

And, to add to the arguments supporting the unconscious decision making when it comes to complicated issues we find on the same page this quote from Sigmund Freud.

Who, we can all agree, has had a major contribution to psychotherapy, but his work was far from perfect, thus all the other currents and approaches that have evolved since in the field.

When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.” – Sigmund Freud

But there are also many other examples and studies that prove that we can be very wrong when making snap decisions, being under the influence of our unconscious biases.

Like in the case of the classical music world where women have managed to become part of the orchestras only after a screen has been implemented during auditions, so the jury could not see if the candidate was a woman or a man.

Or like in the case of Cook County Hospital where doctors have been taught to retrain their instincts based on a computer generated procedure when diagnosing a heart attack. 

So, as much as I wanted to be able to give you the ultimate, deffinitive answer to the question “when to blink and when to think?” I have to agree with Gladwell.

There is no 100% sure answer or recipe that you can follow in any given case. Because we are complicated beings living complicated lives. 

So the best suggestion I can reach to is to keep practicing the fine art of making decisions, taking into account all the findings in this book and always coming back to your life experience. Thus you’ll be able to find your own golden path and right mix of unconscious and conscious thinking. 

With all my Love,
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“Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell

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