Book Review: Blink

Two decades back, an art dealer approached the Getty Museum in California and told that he possessed a Greek marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. A geologist from the University of California was asked to examine the statue and after about fourteen months of investigation, the museum agreed to buy the statue. A few months later the museum invited a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to take a look at the piece and the word that popped into the Director’s mind when he saw the statue was “fresh”. He was sure that something was not right. The Museum took the statue to Greece and the consensus among experts was that the statue was fake. The Director was able to make that call in a few seconds of seeing the statue, in the blink of an eye.
Whenever we meet someone new, in the first few seconds we form an opinion of that person and usually stick to it. Strangely that opinion is often consistent with an opinion formed after lot of thought. For verifying this psychologist Nalini Ambady gave showed some students video clips of teachers, lasting ten seconds with the sound turned off. The results were consistent with the opinion of students who took the course for a full term. This book by Malcolm Gladwell deals with thosesnap judgments and the process behind them.
We are able to form quick judgments due to a process called “Thin Slicing”, which is the ability of our subconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on narrow slices of experience. This is apowerful force within us and is behind many of our impulsive decisions. While this unconscious force is very powerful, it can make mistakes, especially while operating under pressure.
That is what happened during the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx by four police officers. Diallo was standing outside his apartment at midnight taking in air, when a patrol car got suspicious and pulled aside. Two officers wanted to speak with him, but Diallo got scared and started to run. At the same time, he wastrying to pull something from his pocket. One of the cops saw it in a flash as a gun and as trained shot Diallo. The other officers joined to protect their partner. Forty-onebullets and Diallo was dead. The object he was trying to pull from his pocket was his wallet and not a gun. All this happened in seven seconds.
Under pressure and fear, the snap judgment of the officers failed. The motor skills broke down and certain portions of the brain stopped functioning. Vision became restricted and behavior turned aggressive. Such temporary autistic situations that happen in life-threatening situations can cause lot of harm.
But with proper training, you can master the art of making correct snap judgments. One such person is psychologist John Gottman who canpredict with great accuracy if a marriage will last based on observing a video tape of a couple in conversation. He does this by assigning code numbers to each emotion the couple displays during the conversation; a code number for each second of the tape. Then based on the final number, he can make a successful prediction. Later he found that there are specific emotions (of which contempt is the top) that can give a good indication on the longevity of the marriage. Now Gottman can eavesdropa conversation and make his prediction by looking for those specific emotions.
Similarly when Brendan Reilley took over the Cook County Emergency Room in Chicago, the hospital was short on funds and had to treat a large number of patients with critical needs. Since there were only few beds, he had to decide fast if patient who came in with chest pain had to be admitted or not for hear attack. Analyzing apatient history took time. So Reilley turned his attention towards the work of a mathematician called Lee Goldman who devised a simple algorithm for taking the guessworkout of treating chest pain. By asking a few specific questions, doctors could make a quick call and make the correct decision. For making that decision, they did not need too much information, but less.
Combining various experiments in psychology and neuroscience, and combining evidence from fields as diverse as advertising to war games this book presents a fascinating view of how the brain works when it makes quick decisions. This science is presented with enough anecdotes that there is never a dull moment. Sometimes there are too many stories that you get caught up in them rather than the science behind it. But on the whole this is a very intriguing book and is worth reading.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Blink

  1. Mridula,
    The problem with such books is, it presents all these anecdotes which support his theory. But to find if there are opposing theories to this, you need to read a lot of psychological papers and a reviewer cannot find the time for all that. This book is very smooth in presenting one view of this world.

  2. JK,Thanks for the review. V S Ramachandran’s books are a delight to read in this area (I recently read “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness”).

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