Book review: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell | The Power of Thinking without Thinking

Blink talks about using our instant instinctive reactions to our advantage (as opposed to overthinking things), as well as how they become more useful and accurate as our experience builds up. The book also spends a good amount of time describing the dangers and dark side of these instinctive reactions, as they easily bring up unconscious prejudice against people -- say, against the blacks (as mostly criminal) and women (as mostly pertaining to domestic life).

To illustrate all this, the book brings up various stories of war and politics. There are lots of insane statistics; for instance we tend to associate "being tall" with an impression of leadership, and this reflects in e.g. the representation of tall people in Fortune 500 CEOs (14.5% of American are 6 feet or taller, while 58% of those CEOs are).

The book continues with other ways the "blink" effect can be used and what we currently understand about first impressions. An example of this: if you ask people to explain their first impression they will either make it up, or change their mind and usually become less accurate. There's a "select the best jam" story illustrating this -- people would get it right when tasting and saying directly what they thought, but would change their choice (poorly) when asked to judge factually on the texture and other attributes.

I found the first few chapters a lot more engrossing, perhaps because when the book begins and we're not familiar yet with the concept it's all mind-blowing amazing stuff. Then the reader gets used to it :) Or it could be that there's a lot more that affects me personally at that stage of the book, as I don't physically match the expectations of what someone good in my field usually looks like. The short Implicit Association Test in the early chapters is quite powerful in surfacing various levels of unconscious prejudice and bias, that you end up having whether or not you believe you do, due the myriad of societal messages surrounding us. The IAT site I linked to contains a few sample tests, if you want to understand what I'm talking about.

I really recommend this book:

  • to understand yourself better, as a human being. You'll gain a better feel for when to trust your instinctive response and when to question it, and sometimes understanding where an impression comes from;
  • for the many amazing stories, statistics, research results and incredible facts (the love lab, Warren Harding, the research on faces, ...).

I'll finish with a quote from page 97 of my edition, on how to counteract bias anchored deep into the brain.

If you are a white person who would like to treat black people as equals in every way -- who would like to have a set of associations with blacks that are as positive as those that you have with whites -- it requires more than a simple commitment to equality. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become familiar with the best of their culture [...].

The last story of the book is about gender equality in classical music orchestras. When context was removed and "blind" auditions began, where the musician plays anonymously behind a screen, the number of women in classical orchestras suddenly increased fivefold. Until then no one thought or realised that they were also listening with their eyes.