Thursday, January 12, 2012

Blink (Malcom Gladwell)

First of all, the subtitle. “The power of thinking without thinking.” Not a very honest beginning. It felt very sophomoric, almost slimy, like a ‘get smart quick’ kind of sell. And that completely asinine phrase inside the front flap, “Don’t think—blink!” What do we have here? A ‘28th habit’ to seduce the bourgeois into thinking he can make his enterprise—be it a career, business, or relationship—soar beyond his philistine peers? In other words, yet another leadership book?

Well, I was wrong…or the Little Brown marketing team is a bunch of leadership junkies. The basic principle of Blink is that ‘decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.’ If this sounds like a truism, that’s because it is; but in this our Age of Information, where developed intellectual prowess and academic pursuits are touted as the key to success, influence, and even happiness, the reminder and thorough illustration of the power of raw, instinctual ability that each individual is born with is much needed. Opportunity for cultured talent is available to anybody, in any situation, because each of us is born with a power of mind/body that in some unique way is unparalleled even by the most gifted minds. In the words of Carl Jung, (who used the terms ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ in place of ‘instinct’ and ‘intellect’, respectively) we are each born with a field of unconscious experience and skill that is infinite and unfathomed in our singular and relatively short-lived lives. Gladwell, I think, is really pushing Blink as an egalitarian value and leveler across pedigrees and social privilege. “The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves…Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human.”

I learned so much from Gladwell’s breakdown of ‘thin-slicing’, the ability to take a small sample of experience and interpret accurately the meaning of a moment or future results in a few milliseconds of instinctual reflex. It’s actually a fun experiment to think of all the incredible thin-slicers we know that are experts in one form or another—be it the social, mechanical, philosophical, athletic, scientific or artistic realms. Snap-judgment had a bad connotation in my mind before reading this, but now I can dub this reflex ‘thin-slicing’ and embrace the sheer genius of it all. That’s how I roll.

The idea of psychological priming was also so intriguing to me. To think that a mere image or suggestive thought can do so much to determine our reflexive, unconscious responses! This can work in our favor, or against us. Gladwell cites several studies in which the unconscious attitudes of the subjects were incompatible with their stated conscious values. An opportunity to take a quick test in the book confirmed the fear that we are all operating on some measure of sickeningly deficient stereotypes that we fall back on in alarm or haste. However, there is hope. We can’t help it in the moment, but we can help it before the moment by preparation and intentional priming. A simple primed image or word may be enough to condition the brain to be better managed in unplanned moments. “Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions—we can alter the way we thin-slice—by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.” Even something as seemingly insignificant as voluntary facial expressions can prime our thoughts to become more positive.

This leads to Gladwell’s assertion that spontaneity isn’t random. There are truly times in our lives and endeavors when time is severely limited, and the best decision has to be a quick decision, or opportunities go up in flame. The best choices can be instantaneous, but the difference between a good blink and a bad blink is literally in the past. The present ‘you’ is almost literally the autopilot of the past ‘you’. Don’t over-think that. If the heart rate is over 145 beats per minute, motor skills begin to lock up; and after 175 there is absolute breakdown of mental functioning. What keeps the heart rate down in moments of crisis? Familiarity, vitality, and structure; and all these are fostered before moments of crisis.

The author made a good case against over-verbalizing our thoughts, presuming to be able to explain all of our motives or foreign situations we find ourselves in. Doing so can badly misconstrue what has happened in moments that are incomprehensible to the conscious mind. It is called “verbal overshadowing”, and the only people who are able to successfully describe their motives or ‘blinks’ are the experts that have thoroughly familiarized themselves with a pscho-somatic activity or an experience. Even then the caution stands.

The last half of the book felt repetitive, maybe because I was ‘blinking’ to conclusions, or maybe because it really was repetitive. After all that talk about priming and avoiding creating premature interpretations, surely we wouldn’t expect Gladwell to miss an opportunity to prime us with as many illustrations—‘pictures’—and expert interpretation as he could with the remaining pages! I was a little disappointed that he didn’t lean away from illustration to more strategic instruction in the last half, but I suppose I can personalize it for myself. Overall a really neat book, and inspiring to focus on ways that I can prime and support better reflexive decisions—blinks—in the future.

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