Book Summary: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
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- 1-Page Summary
- Introduction: The Power of Snap Judgments
- Chapter 1: The Benefit of Having Less Information
- Chapter 2: The Problem with Rationalizing
- Chapter 3: The Dark Side of Snap Judgments
- Chapter 4: Structure Your Spontaneity
- Chapter 5: Why We Don’t Always Know What We Like
- Chapter 6: Train Your Unconscious Mind and Take Your Time
- Conclusion: The Lessons of Blink
1-Page Book Summary of Blink
In Blink, Gladwell aims to show us that our snap judgments can be just as effective and accurate as decisions that are deliberate and well thought out. Further, he wants to convince us that we have power over our intuitive decisions, even though they’re unconscious and seem out of our control.
Gladwell makes a distinction between two processes for arriving at a decision.
1. Conscious Thinking (also known as rational decision making) is when we use logic to weigh the pros and cons of each choice and make a conscious decision. This process is effective, but it takes a long time.
2. Unconscious Thinking (variously known as the adaptive unconscious, intuition, and making snap judgments) is when we make decisions without understanding why, or even realizing we’ve made them. This process is quick, but is sometimes colored by bias.
We tend to think that conscious thinking is better than unconscious thinking, but both have their time and place. Gladwell spends most of the book analyzing the mechanisms of unconscious thinking, or snap judgments.
The Benefits of Snap Judgments
1) They thin-slice: Our unconscious minds “thin-slice,” or find patterns in situations based on thin slices of experience.
Snap judgments don’t require a lot of information. When we thin-slice, our unconscious picks out the information that is relevant and leaves the rest. This allows us to ignore distracting, superficial details and get to the heart of a problem or choice.
For example, studies show that we can accurately infer the personalities of strangers just by exploring their bedrooms for 15 minutes. We take a thin slice of the stranger’s experience (in the form of his or her room) and use the information we find there to make generalizations about that person. Much of this inference work happens unconsciously. While a person’s bedroom may seem like a superficial slice of his or her experience, its items and their arrangement can be more telling than the barrage of information you’d get from spending time with that stranger in person.
2) They work unconsciously and quickly: The unconscious mind processes little bits of information and makes decisions about them all the time, without our being aware of it. This frees up the conscious mind to focus on tasks that only it can complete, like those involving logic.
For example, people with damage to the part of the brain...
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Blink Summary Introduction: The Power of Snap Judgments
Look before you leap. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Haste makes waste.
We’ve been taught that our decisions are sounder if a lot of time and effort have gone into making them. Gladwell asks, how do our snap judgments compare to our rational, well-thought-out decisions?
Gladwell has three goals:
- Goal #1: To convince you that the decisions we make quickly and seemingly automatically can be just as good as those we spend time and energy on.
- Goal #2: To help you answer the question, “When should I trust my instincts, and when should I be suspicious of them?”
- Goal #3: To convince you that you can improve the snap judgments that tend to be faulty, likes ones that are influenced by bias or that are made under stress.
Blink is about the decisions we make, consciously or not, in the first few seconds of an experience.
Conscious Versus Unconscious Decision Making
Both logical, conscious decision making and snap judgments have their time and place. Our brain uses two broad strategies for making decisions:
Strategy #1: Conscious Thinking
This thinking is also known as rational decision making. When we think consciously, we use...
Shortform Exercise: Learn to Trust Your Gut
Reflect on ways you can let your unconscious mind do the heavy lifting for you.
Do you tend to make your decisions consciously, maybe with a pros-and-cons list? Or do you trust your gut and dive in? What is a recent example of a time when you used strategy or the other?
Blink Summary Chapter 1: The Benefit of Having Less Information
Chapter 1 introduces the idea of “thin-slicing” to explain how our unconscious minds can be so efficient at making snap judgments.
Thin-slicing is the process by which our unconscious minds find patterns in situations based on thin slices of experience.
Our unconscious minds are frugal. They don’t need a lot of information to make a decision. When we thin-slice, our unconscious picks out the information that is relevant and leaves the rest.
Here, the unconscious mind has the advantage over the conscious one. The conscious mind isn’t as good at parsing information. It gets bogged down by details that are distracting, overwhelming, irrelevant, and misleading. Additionally, it picks through this information slowly, and sometimes makes decisions based on information that’s not even relevant. In contrast, the unconscious mind can assess available information in seconds and zero in on the most pertinent details.
We all thin-slice, all the time. The chapters to come show us how to make our thin-slicing even more reliable and efficient.
Psychologist John Gottman and his “love lab” provide a good analogy for what’s happening in our brains when we...
Shortform Exercise: Be Frugal in Decision Making
Look to the past to see if you’ve based decisions on irrelevant information, and start thinking about ways to find patterns and disregard the minor details when making decisions in the future.
Think of a time when you had to make a decision and you were overwhelmed by all the factors to take into account. What was the situation? What were some of the deciding factors?
Blink Summary Chapter 2: The Problem with Rationalizing
There are two primary benefits of snap decisions:
- They’re quick
- They’re unconscious
The value of speed is obvious in a situation in which there’s no time to think things through. EMTs, firefighters, and police officers make snap decisions all the time. But even though we don’t realize it, we’re all making snap decisions constantly, and we all find ourselves in situations where time is limited and we need to act quickly.
The Advantages of the Unconscious Mind
In addition to being speedy, snap decisions are unconscious. The unconscious mind handles all the minor bits of information thrown at us every day. This frees up the conscious mind to focus on problems that need our deliberate attention.
Scientists can see how much work the unconscious mind does by observing people with brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that makes unconscious decisions.
People with ventromedial damage can’t make snap judgments. Their unconscious minds don’t prioritize information for them. They give equal weight to minor and major details when making a decision. Consequently, they can make decisions, but...
Blink Summary Chapter 3: The Dark Side of Snap Judgments
In order to recognize the power of the unconscious mind’s thin-slicing, we need to accept both its light and dark sides:
- Light side: Thin-slicing allows us to judge a person or situation from a first impression. We don’t need long hours or months of study.
- Dark side: Thin-slicing can act on deep-seated biases, leading us disastrously astray.
This chapter is about the powerful dark side of our snap judgments (and what we can do to mitigate it).
Thin-slicing doesn’t always serve us. Sometimes, we make superficial snap judgments.
Usually, thin-slicing helps us get below the surface details of a situation to find deep patterns. But stress, time pressures, and ingrained associations can interrupt this deep dive, leaving us with a snap judgment made on irrelevant surface details.
The Case of Warren Harding
For example, before he became the 29th president of the United States, Warren Harding had an undistinguished political career. He wasn’t particularly smart, rarely took a stance on (or interest in) political issues, gave vague speeches, and spent much of his time drinking and womanizing.
Still, Harding climbed the...
Shortform Exercise: Confront Your Ingrained Biases
Acknowledging your biases is difficult and uncomfortable. It’s also crucial to improving your snap judgments and aligning your unconscious attitudes with your conscious ones. Reflect on your experiences and how they may have influenced your biases.
Try not to think too much about your answers to the following questions. Capture your gut reactions: When you read the word “leader,” who do you picture? What about “teacher”? “Parent”? “Firefighter”?
Blink Summary Chapter 4: Structure Your Spontaneity
We can make better snap judgments by providing the unconscious mind with structure. This involves rehearsing our desired spontaneous responses and developing rules we can fall back on in times of stress.
Chapter 4 reviews two lessons about making good snap judgments:
1. Good Decisions Require Both Deliberate and Unconscious Thinking
Neither deliberate nor intuitive decision making is inherently good or bad. Whether these strategies are good, bad, or neutral depends on the situation. If we have the time, resources, and a clearly defined task, deliberate decision making is productive. It can also prime us for “rapid cognition,” or snap judgments.
Part of how we can make better decisions is to understand when the deliberate approach is best, and when the intuitive approach is best. When possible, start with deliberate decision making. This lays the groundwork for rapid cognition.
For example, improvisation comedy is all about spur-of-the-moment decisions. You have to be good at thinking on your feet or the comedy will fall flat.
But what the audience doesn’t see is all the preparation involved in creating a successful show. Even though the actors are making things up...
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Blink Summary Chapter 5: Why We Don’t Always Know What We Like
Without structure, thin-slicing isn’t as effective as it could be. Thin-slicing also doesn’t work out of context.
For example, love lab researcher John Gottman can predict the future of your marriage after 15 minutes of observation. But he can only do this if he’s observing you and your spouse in the right context—in this case, if you’re discussing something relevant to your relationship. He won’t have the same insight watching you and your spouse play Ping-Pong, for instance.
Context also matters when we make decisions about what we like and don’t like. When we’re assessing a particular food, product, or type of music, both our rational minds and our guts may say we don’t like something that we actually like (or have the potential to like). Sometimes, we don’t know what we want or like because we’re thin-slicing out of context.
Let’s look at three reasons thin-slicing goes awry when it comes to knowing what we like.
Reason #1: Sensation Transference
Sensation transference is when the way a product looks influences the way we experience it. In other words, we don’t distinguish between the product and its packaging. The packaging is part of the product, not...
Blink Summary Chapter 6: Train Your Unconscious Mind and Take Your Time
Most of us think we can’t control our instinctive reactions. This assumption is both wrong and defeatist. We can improve our instinctive decision making through deliberate training and by slowing down. As fast as they are, even snap judgments take time.
It’s hard to take your time when you’re in a stressful situation. There are two strategies for improving the decisions we make under stress: 1) rehearse, and 2) practice mind reading.
Strategy #1: Rehearse
Practice making decisions in environments and circumstances that mimic stressful situations. Rehearse your upcoming job interview or presentation in an environment that mirrors the actual event as closely as possible. Consider factors like the time of day, the people involved, and what you’ll wear. Replicate these details in your rehearsal.
These drills allow you the time to figure out the most appropriate response to the stressor. Then, when you’re actually in a moment of stress, you’ll have practiced the desired response so often that it’s instinctual. You won’t have to make a rational decision in the moment and can rely on your unconscious mind. This a way to inoculate yourself against stress.
Shortform Exercise: Inoculate Yourself Against Stress
Use this exercise to think about ways you can rehearse making good, quick decisions in stressful situations.
What stressful situation do you find yourself in frequently enough that it gets in the way of your success? (Maybe it’s giving presentations at work or going on job interviews.)
Blink Summary Conclusion: The Lessons of Blink
Blink’s conclusion tells the story of trombone player Abbie Conant to highlight ways we can counter the frailty of our first impressions.
Sensation Transference and Female Trombone Players
In 1980, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra invited Conant to audition, not realizing she was a woman. Conant played behind a screen during the first round of the audition. The director was floored by her talent until he found out she was a woman.
The trombone was thought to be a “masculine” instrument, played in military marching bands. The director didn’t believe a woman could play it as well as a man.
The committee reluctantly allowed Conant to join the orchestra, but a year later demoted her to second trombone. The same playing that had immediately astounded them when they listened to her blind suddenly didn’t sound so good when they knew it was coming from a woman.
Conant took her case to court. The orchestra argued that she didn’t have the physical strength to lead the trombone section and that her shortness of breath was audible when she was playing. Conant had to take a battery of tests to prove her physical aptitude for trombone playing.
After eight years, Conant won...