Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Book Review: Blink - a tale of love at first sight

Book Name: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Genre: Non-Fiction

The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
The book is about the power of first impressions, and I would also like to begin with my first impression of the book. For me, it was ‘awesome’ in one word.

The book starts with the story of a Kouros, an ancient Greek statue that was to be purchased by the Getty Museum in California. The story revolves with the normal purchase process with a team of analysts spending around 14 months doing research on the sculptures, till a historian named Federico Zeri was taken to see the statue, and in an instant he concluded it was fake. Another two historians too sensed something wrong leading to an investigation on the sculpture which unraveled the forgery scheme. Citing the story, Gladwell emphasizes on the initial hunches by the historians than the established process.

He focuses on a backstage process, which works subconsciously and has the capacity to sift huge amounts of information, blend data, isolate telling details and come to astonishingly rapid conclusions, even in the first two seconds of seeing something. In a nutshell, ‘ Blink' is a book about those first two seconds.

If you go beyond, the book walks quickly through a series of delightful stories, all about the backstage mental process which we call intuition. The story of psychologist John Gottman is the one I like the most which depicts an interesting tale in which Gottman can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will be married 15 years later by just after watching an hours of their conversation through a videotape. The interesting part is that he can usually predict whether a marriage will work after watching just three minutes of newlywed conversation. ‘Blink’ couldn’t have a more interesting topic to connect with the current genre. If you are not laughing, can I say the book ‘Blink’ favors ‘Love at first sight’…you decide.

Gladwell also observes that we are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition as we assume that long, methodical investigation yields more reliable conclusions. But, ‘Blink’ focuses otherwise and argues that "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately."

The 277 page book has dozens of stories about thin-slicing, from Pentagon war game to New Coke and so on.

As I already mentioned, my first impression on ‘Blink’ is simply superb and fascinating. However, my brain does not digest the concept whole heartedly and wants something more concrete than the thin-slicing concept. I too have the thick-slicing side that wants more than a series of remarkable anecdotes and searches for a comprehensive theory of the whole. It wants to know how all the different bits of information fit together.

Gladwell never tells us how the brain performs these amazing cognitive feats; we just get the scattered byproducts of the mysterious backstage process. In some of his stories, it's regular people who are making snap judgments; in others, it's experts who have been through decades of formal training. In some experiments, the environment matters a great deal; in others, the setting is a psychologist's lab. In some, the snap judgments are based on methodical reasoning -- as with a scientist who has broken facial expressions into discrete parts; in others, the snap-judgment process is formless and instinctive. In some, priming is all-important; in others, priming is disregarded.

Moreover, I feel that while it would be pleasing if we all had these supercomputers in our heads, Gladwell is overselling his case. Though Gladwell describes several ways intuition can lead people astray, he doesn't really dwell on how often that happens. I would like to recall the book "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis, which tell how a baseball executive used rigorous statistical analysis to beat fuzzy-minded old pros who relied on their gut impressions. And to the contrast, ‘Blink’ argues on how impressions can be as reliable as data. I am not sure how to reconcile both. What is the relationship between self-conscious reason and backstage intuition? Which one is right more often?

However, I like the book very well. If you want to trust the ‘Blink’ in my judgment, go for the book; it’s a must read. But I can’t refrain from citing a caveat that few of you may be frustrated, troubled and left wanting more.

Reviewer's Note:
I read books of any genre and sometimes do review. If you like my review, please feel free to add a comment. 

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