HomeIndustry Commentary

Don’t blink at Blink

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

Blink is a 265 page explanation of why snap judgments are superior to 265 page explanations. My snap judgment of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell, 2005) was that its premise was worthless and it wasn’t worth taking the time to read.


The book begins with the case of a statue — a Greek kouros — which all scientific analysis suggested was genuine, but which many authorities on ancient art felt, immediately upon seeing it, was a forgery. The author’s admiration for the authorities and disdain for those who failed with careful, scientific analysis is clear. (If, you, in an un-Blink-like way, are wondering how many art forgeries fooled the art experts until the scientists got involved, the question goes unanswered.)

Following the kouros case are several other examples of snap judgments that outperformed careful analysis. Attention spans being what they are these days, most readers will arrive at the same conclusion they’d have reached by reading nothing more than the dust jacket — they’d be persuaded, because “thinking without thinking” is far easier, and therefore more appealing, than the hard work of thinking with thinking.


As I don’t accept Blink‘s premise, I figured I’d better read the whole book before reaching a conclusion. If you also decide to evaluate Blink, not by blinking but by careful reading, don’t start at the beginning. Instead, begin with the chapter titled “The Warren Harding Syndrome.” It’s where the book’s important but rarely mentioned message begins: That snap judgments get you into trouble more often than they get you out of it.

Warren Harding looked more presidential than just about anyone else ever did, with the possible exceptions of George Washington and John F. Kennedy. Tall, good looking, broad-shouldered and with a deep, powerful voice, he was the epitome of the presidential image. Voters took one look, heard a word or two, and swooned.

Warren Harding was, you’ll recall, one of the worst presidents in American history.


There’s the case of Abbie Conant, who, auditioning behind a screen, became lead trombonist for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Until, that is, she finished playing and walked out from behind the screen, at which point the orchestra’s music director realized he’d made a horrible mistake: Women, he and everyone else knew, couldn’t play the trombone well.

In 1963, George Wallace saw Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood and — Blink! — knew they didn’t belong in the University of Alabama. Neither you (I presume) nor I share Wallace’s overt bias. But Gladwell presents hard-to-explain-away scientific evidence that demonstrates, disconcertingly, how much most of us, regardless of our self-described race, hold and act on unconscious but hard-to-overcome negative associations about black Americans.

Then there’s height. The average CEOs is, for example, three inches taller than the average American male. More generally, economic research demonstrates that every inch of height is worth $789 per year in compensation.

Even your taste buds are vulnerable. Blink documents consumer research in which the shape of the bottle or the coloring on the can changes how consumers describe what they taste.


Most CIOs already recognize at least one example of the dangers of Blink — executives who see a software demo and immediately decide that this is the exact solution to all their problems. But these same CIOs often make Blink decisions when hiring, where all of their biases and unconscious associations have maximum influence.

27% of Blink presents the evidence in favor of “fast cognition.” The rest, for the relatively few readers who penetrate that far, presents the evidence of how it usually misfires. The inescapable conclusion, should you decide to not first blink, is that the increasingly popular trend toward trusting your gut is, put simply, a very bad idea.

Unless …

There are those cases in which snap judgment did outperform careful analysis. How should we understand them? The author does, in the end, provide some excellent advice about this. Fast cognition works for experts in their areas of expertise, who have accumulated a great deal of hard-won experience, who are acutely aware of what can bias their judgment, and who take care to structure the way they experience events so as to give them the best chance of reaching the right decision.

Which is to say, Blinking is like luck. As Louis Pasteur explained, it favors the prepared mind.


Comments (5)

  • I usually read KJR and think “Gosh, I wish I could describe things so sensibly”… but this is one of those rare occasions when I actively disagree. I remember this column vividly, as it put me off reading Blink for years. But then I read How We Decide (Jonah Lehrer), and I was very impressed by all the cognitive science research that is addressing that very question. Lehrer’s book is a tour de force of cleverly designed psychology experiments that elucidate the operation of the brain’s two largely independent decision-making engines: the rational and the intuitive. And that’s what Blink is about, too, although Gladwell’s style is breezier and more gee-whiz. His message isn’t that intuitive decision-making can get you into trouble, as this review indicates. Rather, it’s that intuitive processes can be effective when rational ones aren’t, and that it’s important to be able to recognize those situations. In particular, his examples (Chancelorville, three samples of soda, choosing automobiles) illustrate the dangers of “analysis paralysis”, the belief that more information is always better, in that it always leads to better decisions. Even experts can be overwhelmed by details, and end up taking longer, and making poorer decisions than if they had trusted their initial impressions. If you don’t like Blink, read How We Decide, and see a similar message with even more experimental support.

Comments are closed.