Book Review: Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, 2005
The book is an easy and pleasant read with a simple point: There are many times and situations in which a person’s immediate gut reaction to a person or situation is more reliable than careful study, even using sophisticated technology and technique. Reading that sentence, most of us probably have a quick instinct to agree.
Reading the book thoughtfully, however, raises a number of warning flags. First, there is the problem of the high number of instances when our gut instinct turns out to be wrong. Second, it seems to take a lot of training and practice to develop trustworthy “instincts,” which means of course that we’re not talking about instinct at all.
The problem is captured well in one of Gladwell’s quotations from an experienced bird watcher.
“When it come down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you don’t take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and this; therefore it must be this species. It’s more natural and instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You know what it is at a glance.”
Accurate identification of birds in the field is instinctive for those who have a lot of practice. Surely “instinctive” is the wrong word here. The real idea is simply that, with a great deal of practice, our brains can recognize birds without going through a detailed and conscious checklist. Though the identification may take place in the blink of an eye, it is nonetheless a skill, not an instinct.
Gladwell is fully aware that there are complications in his subject. He is not naive but neither is he especially helpful in teaching us “when to blink and when to think.” Some of his examples of decision making gone wrong are of situations in which things happen too quickly for good judgment. The shooting of six shots at president Reagan, for example, took only 1.6 seconds. No one could “instinctively” react quickly enough to offer any help. By the time they had grabbed the shooter, the gun was already emptied.
What is the point of this illustration? It seems trusting the blink of instinct may be wrong when there isn’t enough time to reflect on the matter. That is nonsensical and Gladwell does little to make sense of it.
Because the book contains as many anecdotes which contradict his point as there are to support it, the score comes out about even. So Blink, while interesting, ends up with just enough substance to deserve a glance, but not much more.
At the end of the book, though, is an important idea. Gladwell writes: The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.
Wisdom is built on understanding, which in turn is built on knowledge. But knowing does not guarantee understanding and understanding does not guarantee wisdom. That’s why we walk by faith. . .