It can be difficult to distill a book into a few main ideas. I find it particularly difficult to distill Malcolm Gladwell’s books because of all of the stories and anecdotes interwoven throughout the book. For me, this style is what makes him an expert storyteller; however, it makes it difficult to pull out main ideas without retelling all of the stories.
The basic premise of Gladwell’s book Blink is to investigate how people make decisions and judgments. We basically rely on 2 different strategies to make sense of situations: conscious and unconscious. The conscious strategy relies on logic, knowledge, and works slowly, whereas our unconscious strategy happens quickly and under the surface. In general we tend to think that to make good decisions we must gather as much information as possible and take as much time as possible to reach the best decision. Gladwell shows that this isn’t always the case and that decisions made quickly can be as good as those made slowly.
Thin-slicing is a persons ability to unconsciously recognize patterns in situations and behaviors in a very short amount of time or slice of an experience. An experiment that Gladwell references to illustrate thin-slicing involved developing a “personality workup” on 80 college students and then seeing how closely their friends could measure their personality in a questionnaire versus complete strangers. The strangers were only allowed 15 minutes to look around in the college students’ dorm rooms. On the whole, the strangers were a bit more accurate. This experiment shows that you can often learn a lot more from a private space than from the image people display. By only being exposed to a “thin slice” of an experience with the students, the strangers did not have the distractions or confusing and irrelevant information that comes along with knowing someone personally.
Rapid Cognition Gone Wrong
Although thin-slicing and first impressions can often reveal more than we imagine, there are times when rapid cognition leads us in the wrong direction. The example that Gladwell provides is president Warren Harding. The impression people got of him was that he was handsome and distinguished-looking, therefore, he must be intelligent and a man of integrity. Gladwell describes Harding’s path to presidency but the general idea was that he advanced not because of his political or leadership abilities but because he looked like a good president. The general consensus from historians is that he was “…one of the worst presidents in American History.”
The truth is that our first impressions and snap judgments are driven by our experiences and environment. The only way to change our impression on race, for instance, is to change the experiences and environment we live which creates a negative impression.
Effective Rapid Cognition
It is true that rapid cognition can lead us astray due to our previous experiences, but it is also true that sometimes it is a person’s experience and intuition that allows them to make a good decisions in a high stress situation. Gladwell mentions Gary Klein’s study of nurses and firefighters who often have to make decisions under lots of pressure. There simply isn’t enough time to systematically and logically go through all the data. These decisions have to be made quickly and are often based on experience. Good decisions made under high pressure are not random but stem from good training, following rules, and doing rehearsals. Someone inexperienced without a lot of training that is forced to make a decision under high stress will confront more information than his or her unconscious is comfortable with and this is paralyzing. The trick is to eliminate all the extra information and focus only on what is important.
High Stress Effects on Decisions
Good decisions can be made under high stress situations; however, there are limits to this. Gladwell mentions a former army lieutenant named Dave Grossman who argues that the best performance occurs when a person’s heart rate is in the range of 115-145 beats per minute. What happens above this range? Gladwell uses stories of high speed police chases and shootings to illustrate this idea. When a cop is in a fast-paced, high stress, situation after a high-speed chase it is easy to understand how they wouldn’t be in the optimal mindset for decision-making. Cops in these situations tend to display “temporary autism” and lose their ability to take in details. Their thinking narrows, their mind becomes very rigid, and all additional evidence or factors don’t register in their mind. This tends to lead to low-quality intuitive reactions, which rely on stereotypes, bias, and prejudices.
In this book Gladwell gives a very thoughtful presentation how people think and make decisions. He shows how thin-slicing and rapid cognition can lead to effective decisions which cut out all the clutter. On the other hand, he also shows how high stress situations can have disastrous effects on our decisions. If you want to read good stories interwoven with thoughtful information that will make you think, this is the book for you.