Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Blink: The power of thinking without thinking

Book cover

by Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin Books, 2005.


We live in a world that assumes the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. We believe it is far better to collect as much information as possible and spend as much time as possible deliberating over it. But decisions made very quickly can be every good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately. Sometimes a snap judgement – a "blink " – can be far more effective than a cautious decision. You have to learn to trust your instincts.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in September 2006)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Of Greek statues and gamblers

The Greek philosopher Sophocles said that quick decisions are unsafe decisions. On the contrary, says a modern thinker and writer, Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, a snap judgement – a "blink"– can be far more effective than a cautious decision. It’s about trusting your instincts – or rather, understanding when to trust them.

Gladwell, a former science writer and senior staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, is the author of the bestselling book The Tipping Point (also reviewed on the VLRC) which shows how some ideas, products, messages and behaviours spread through "word-of-mouth epidemics". Blink is another product of his very original way of looking at the world. His approach, once again, is to weave together and draw the lessons from a series of compelling stories drawn from all walks of life and from the work of psychologists and other researchers.

He commences with the tale of how the Getty Museum purchased a rare ancient Greek statue for $10 million. This followed months of painstaking investigations by lawyers and scientists that apparently confirmed the statue’s age and authenticity. However, a number of experts on Greek sculpture who were also shown the statue felt on first sight an "intuitive repulsion" – it didn’t look "right" to them. But it was too late. Subsequent investigation into the origins of the statue suggested the strong possibility that it was indeed a fake. As Gladwell says, in the first two seconds of looking – "in a single glance" – the experts understood more about the essence of the statue than the Getty team had after 14 months. Gladwell says his book is about those first two seconds.

He recounts too the experiment which hooked card-playing gamblers up to a machine that measured the sweat glands in the palms of their hands. The gamblers were asked to choose cards from red and blue decks in a way that maximised their earnings. What they were not told was that the red cards offered high rewards but high losses, while the winning strategy was to choose the blue cards which offered a steady series of smaller payouts with modest penalties. Most players started to develop a conscious hunch about what was happening after about fifty cards. They didn’t know why they preferred the blue decks but sensed they were a better bet.

The experiment also showed, however, that the gamblers’ sweat glands started generating stress responses to the red cards by the tenth card and, furthermore, that their glands' behaviour began to change at the same time as they favoured the blue decks and chose fewer and fewer red cards. In other words, "the gamblers figured the game out before they realised they had figured the game out".

Gladwell explains that our brain uses two strategies to make sense of critical situations. In the conscious strategy we think about what we’ve learned and evolve an answer. It’s logical but it’s slow and needs lots of information. The second, "fast and frugal" strategy works much quicker but operates – at least at first – below the surface of consciousness. The brain reaches conclusions without telling us it’s reaching conclusions.

That part of our brain that does this is the "adaptive unconscious". As Gladwell describes it, it is a kind of internal computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need to keep functioning as human beings. The mind operates by relegating a lot of high-level thinking to the unconscious just like a modern plane flies on automatic pilot. We "toggle back and forth" between our conscious and unconscious modes of thinking depending on the situation.

The problem, as Gladwell sees it, is that we live in a world which assumes the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. We believe it is far better to collect as much information as possible and spend as much time as possible deliberating over it. But, Gladwell assures us, decisions made very quickly can be every good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

Back to the top

The power of thin-slicing

The Greek statue experts and the gamblers were both, without knowing it, using "thin-slicing" – "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience". Gladwell moves on to the story of John Gottman, the psychologist who videotapes 15-minute conversations of married couples. By analysing dialogue and facial expressions during every second of the interaction, collecting information from sensors about physical changes such as heart rate and body temperature, and feeding all the data into complex equations, Gottman can predict with extraordinary accuracy which marriages will end in divorce. He has found that the most accurate predictor is contempt. If either partner shows contempt of the other, it is the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.

Gottman’s work, says Gladwell, is not about making snap judgments but it demonstrates how thin-slicing works. What makes it possible for the unconscious to gather the necessary information for a sophisticated decision is that it uses an automated, accelerated version of Gottman’s analytical processes. When we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconscious sifts through all the information, rejects everything irrelevant and focuses on what really matters.

[We are not told, incidentally, whether Gottman reveals his findings to the couples. If he does, we would be inclined to say that they are self-fulfilling prophecies.]

Back to the top

Behind the "locked door"

As Gladwell points out, the difficulty in understanding how snap judgements work is that they are very quick and are buried in our unconscious – they take place behind a "locked door". Gladwell suggests that, if we are to learn to improve the quality of our decisions, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgements and understand that it is possible to know without knowing why we know.

Gladwell warns, however, that our instincts can also betray us. Our unconscious is a powerful but fallible force. Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with many other interests and emotions so we need to know when to trust our instincts and when to be wary of them. We also need to be wary of what other people tell us about their first impressions.

For instance, research into speed-dating shows that young people often choose partners based on unconscious first impressions that are very different from the conscious criteria they set themselves for prospective date partners. A young woman, asked to describe her perfect man, said she wanted someone who was intelligent and sincere. But, given a roomful of choices, she instantly changed her mind about the kind of person she wanted and chose an attractive and funny man.

In another example, a psychologist researcher hung two ropes from the ceiling in a room full of furniture and different objects like poles and cords. He asked people to suggest ways for joining up the two ropes. Most people quickly came up with suggestions that used the furniture and the other objects. They missed the solution that involved swinging one rope like a pendulum and grabbing hold of the other rope.

It was only when the researcher casually brushed against one rope and set it in motion that the participants came up with the pendulum solution. Asked to describe how they had figured it out, only one gave the right reason. The others came up with a variety of answers that said it had suddenly "dawned" on them somehow. The hint was so subtle, they had only picked it up unconsciously and processed it behind the "locked door". Pressed by the researcher to explain, all they could do was to make up what seemed to them a plausible answer.

Gladwell’s conclusion from these and the other stories he tells to illustrate the "locked door" phenomenon is that, when we ask people to explain their thinking, we must be careful in how we interpret their answers. Because we all operate with two minds at once, we are often ignorant of the things that affect our actions – though we rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say "I don’t know" more often.

Back to the top

The dark side of thin-slicing

The negative side of "rapid cognition" is people’s tendency to jump to conclusions and their failure to dig below the surface. Gladwell sums this up as the "Warren Harding error" – Harding was selected as a US presidential candidate essentially because he was handsome and distinguished-looking but he turned out to be one of the worst presidents in American history. It’s why mediocrities sometimes end up in positions of enormous responsibility.

We have to understand when rapid cognition can lead us astray. Implicit associations play a big part in our beliefs and behaviour. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures the attitudes we hold at an unconscious level – the immediate, automatic associations we make before we have had time to think. The Race IAT shows that many people who consciously believe in racial equality have a strong pro-white bias at an unconscious level. Even half of the African Americans who have taken the test have stronger associations with whites than with blacks – which Gladwell ascribes to the power of cultural messages in North America that link white with "good".

Gladwell suggests that the Warren Harding effect is at work in our corporations. The CEOs of most large US firms (overwhelmingly white and male) are significantly taller than the average US male. This is not due to deliberate prejudice against shorter men. It happens because our stereotype of what a leader is supposed to look like blinds us to other considerations. (Taller people also earn more apparently – research suggests an inch of height is worth nearly $800 a year!).

Salespeople are also prone to the Warren Harding syndrome. They often let physical first impressions drown out the other information they gather in the first instant of meeting a potential customer. This is why, says Gladwell, one research project found that black and female customers buying cars were offered higher initial prices than those offered by car salesmen to male or white customers. Even after negotiation, the female and black customers ended up buying at prices substantially higher than the male, white clients. This was not because the salesmen were sexists or bigots or because the female and black customers were stupid (they were all college-educated, professional people). It was because the car salesmen made an unconscious link in their mind between "suckers" and women and minorities.

Gladwell believes we can prevent this kind of unconscious discrimination. If we accept that our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, we can change the way we thin-slice by changing the experiences that create those impressions. More is needed than a simple commitment to equality. We should change our lives so we are regularly exposed to minorities and become comfortable and familiar with them, so that when we meet, hire or talk with a member of a minority, our first impressions don’t betray us.

Back to the top

Creating structure for spontaneity

One of Gladwell’s most worrying stories concerns Millennium Challenge, the hugely expensive, computerised war game staged by the Pentagon in 2002 to test new, radical ideas on how to wage war. According to the war game’s scenario, an anti-American rogue military commander in the Persian Gulf – the "Red Team" – was threatening to push the entire region into war. A former Marine officer, a Vietnam veteran with a distinguished military record, was given command of Red Team.

The strategy of the opposing "Blue Team", representing the US forces, was based on the Pentagon’s assessment that warfare in future would be driven by ideas as much as weapons and would engage economies and cultures as much as armies. Blue Team’s aim was to target the full spectrum of the adversary’s environment – political, military, economic, social and cultural – and it was given the support of the Pentagon’s most advanced decision-making systems and access to an unprecedented amount of information and intelligence. Blue Team’s approach was logical, systematic and rational.

The Red Team commander had learned from experience, however, that in the heat of battle, the uncertainties of war and pressures of time make rational analysis impossible. When the Blue Team (theoretically) sent in thousands of troops and an aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf, the Red Team commander failed to react as the computers predicted and hit every Blue Team move with a series of unconventional, improvised tactics that, if the exercise had been real, would have killed thousands of American servicemen and sunk a large part of the US fleet.

The Red Team commander, says Gladwell, had created the conditions for "successful spontaneity". In Red Team’s case, subordinate officers were allowed to use their own initiative and be innovative within the overall guidance and intent provided by the team commander. This made rapid cognition possible. Blue Team’s system, on the other hand, forced commanders to stop and talk things over and work out what was going on.

Gladwell’s point is that we tend to assume that the more information decision-makers have, the more effective they will be. In fact, he maintains, the extra information is not an advantage at all and you need to know very little to find the "underlying signature" of a complex situation. Extra information may be harmful and can confuse the issue. Red Team did their analysis before the battle started and, once hostilities began, were careful not to overload their people with information. Blue Team meanwhile was burdened with data and analyses.

According to Gladwell, when the Pentagon re-ran the Millennium Challenge war game, they turned the clock back, negating all of Red Team’s successes. The exercise was also scripted to prevent Red Team making any more unforeseen moves. The result was a major victory for Blue Team and seeming vindication of the Pentagon’s new approach to war making. It seems this may have contributed to US over-confidence when it went to war for real in Iraq shortly afterwards.

Back to the top

The difficulty of asking people what they want

Gladwell’s understanding of the power of the unconscious makes him particularly suspicious of market research surveys and opinion polls. While people are very willing to give information explaining their actions, he believes those explanations, especially when they concern spontaneous opinions that arise out of the unconscious, aren’t necessarily correct. He tells the story of Kenna, a rock musician. Kenna’s individual style has built a strong following among the young and among music aficionados who love his music on first hearing, but his career stalled because market research carried out by the record companies and radio stations didn’t clearly show that the public liked him.

It was also the findings of market research using blind "sip tests" comparing Coke with Pepsi, and in which consumers seemed to prefer Pepsi, that led Coca-Cola to make the disastrous decision to change the drink’s flavour and introduce New Coke. To the company’s great surprise, consumers protested and forced it to withdraw the new flavour. A very good illustration, as Gladwell says, of how complicated it is to find out what people really think.

Gladwell looks at various problems with market research. For instance, people, without realising it, transfer impressions about the packaging of a product to the product itself (this is called "sensation transference"). Consumers in one test couldn’t tell the difference between butter and margarine when the latter was wrapped in upmarket packaging. When Del Monte took peaches out of a tin and put them in a glass jar, people felt they tasted better. People expect ice cream in a cylindrical container will taste better than in a rectangular package. In other words, when we put something in our mouth and instantly decide whether it tastes good or not, we are reacting not only to the evidence from our taste buds but also the evidence of our eyes, memories and imaginations.

Coca-Cola’s mistake was to use blind taste tests because no one in the real world drinks Coke blind. The firm had forgotten the importance of brand imagery – when people drink Coke, they transfer to the taste all the unconscious associations they have of the brand. First impressions don’t work because colas are not supposed to be sipped blind.

It is also hard for people to explain their feeling about unfamiliar things, as illustrated by the story of the Aeron chair, an attempt to produce the most ergonomically correct office chair. The initial reaction from consumers to what they perceived as an ugly product was very negative. But people were misinterpreting their own feelings. Though they said they hated it, what they really meant was that the chair was very new and unusual and they weren’t used to it. The chair went on to become a bestseller.

Gladwell concludes that testing new products or ideas is highly problematical. The most successful companies understand that the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation.

Back to the top

The art of mind reading

One of the most powerful stories told by Gladwell concerns the young black immigrant shot dead by four New York policemen when they thought he was pulling a gun on them. He had in fact been reaching for his wallet. The policemen had failed to read his mind and the clues on his face.

To understand how mind reading works, Gladwell relates how two psychologists spent years studying how people’s facial expressions display their inner emotions. They showed that the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on in our mind, it actually is what is going on inside our mind. We use our voluntary expressive system to signal our emotions intentionally. But our involuntary expressive system is perhaps even more important as it signals our authentic feelings. Gladwell contends that we can all thin-slice other people and mind-read them effortlessly and automatically because the clues are right there on their face.

But, as in the case of the police shooting above, mind reading can break down. Interviews with policemen involved in shootings show that in these incidents they suddenly have great visual clarity, tunnel vision and the feeling that time is slowing down. When the human body reacts to the extreme stress of a life-threatening situation, the mind drastically cuts down the amount of information it has to deal with. The senses narrow, allowing us to focus quickly on the threat in front of us. The heart rate rapidly increases, closing down the forebrain where cognitive processing takes place. The excitement leaves us "mind-blind" and temporarily "autistic", we become vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices. Our powers of thin-slicing are extraordinary but the "giant computer in our unconscious" needs a moment to do its work.

This is why some US police departments have apparently moved toward one-officer squad cars rather than two-. Research shows that two officers are more likely to have complaints filed against them or to arrest or injure someone. The lone cop, on the other hand, slows things down, doesn’t charge in, and waits for backup to arrive. When two officers are together, bravado makes them speed things up.

Gladwell argues that extreme arousal and mind-blindness are not inevitable under stress. He suggests that repeated training combined with real-world experience can fundamentally change the way a police officer reacts to a violent situation – as illustrated by another example which describes how a seasoned officer refrained from shooting an armed criminal.

The latter incident only lasted two seconds but the officer’s training and experience allowed him to stretch out time, slow things down, and keep gathering information, especially the fear in the face of his assailant, until the last possible moment. This, says Gadwell, was a great example of a snap judgement, made possible by training and experience – the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from a very thin slice of experience. To the novice, it would have happened in a blur. But, for the expert, every moment or blink contains discrete parts which offer an opportunity for intervention and correction. [One wonders what happens if an assailant is wearing a mask or a hood, making it impossible for a policeman to read their facial clues.]

Back to the top

Lessons of Blink

Blink ends on a musical note. Classical musicians can tell whether another musician is any good in the first two seconds of an audition. For years, however, orchestras had a bias against female players who, it was felt, were not as able as their male counterparts. It was only when auditions took place behind screens so that gender of the player could not be detected that women’s ability was acknowledged and they started to take their proper place in orchestras.

For Gladwell, this example summarises the lessons to be drawn from Blink. We need first, he says, to acknowledge the subtle influences that can bias our unconscious. Second, if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, we can control the process and prevent (for example) the people fighting wars or policing our streets from making mistakes. We have to educate our unconscious and take charge of the first two seconds.

Like The Tipping Point, Blink is going to be one of those books that everybody else seems to have read or heard of. With its author’s very engaging style and all the stories and examples he brings together (many more than those briefly mentioned here), Blink makes an absorbing read, just the sort of book to take with you on a plane or train journey. Like The Tipping Point, Blinkhas received a lot of critical acclaim, although some reviewers have raised questions about certain perceived inconsistencies. Why does rapid cognition work for recognising forgeries but fail to help us identify comfortable chairs? Why does it help us to surprise the enemy in warfare but not help us to elect presidents? Others worry about the implication that we can only use our intuition in areas where we have deep experience. It has also been suggested that the infallibility of our unconscious is the very reason why we need to provide proof and analysis to back up our first impressions.

Gladwell’s argument that we can educate our unconscious is nonetheless intriguing, though, after reading the book, we might feel we need some more ideas on how to do that. A helpful book here is The Power of Impossible Thinking by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook (see the VLRC review) which looks at how we can change our mental models and includes some specific suggestions for developing our powers of intuition.

To any criticisms of his book, Gladwell would probably respond that he only sees himself as a "conversation starter" who is trying to raise awareness about issues and provoke debate. He explained in an interview given after Blink was published that he has a very organic style of writing; he follows certain ideas and sees what happens. He admits that he could write another book tomorrow on the same subject that would turn out completely differently. It would be fascinating to know what he is working on next.

Back to the top