Book Review – Blink

Classical music was once almost exclusively the preserve of white men. It was believed that women could simply not play as well as men, for they did not have the strength, attitude or resilience for many pieces of music. Over the past few decades, though, classical music has undergone a transformation. Musicians, rather than facing auditions held in the dressing room of a conductor, now audition in front of selection committees. Perhaps the greatest change, though, is that they now audition from behind a screen. Since these screens went up, thirty years ago now, a strange thing has happened: the number of women in the most celebrated American orchestras has increased fivefold. The world of classical music came to realize “that what they had thought was a pure and powerful first impression–listening to someone play–was in fact hopelessly corrupted. ‘Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture…other people look awful when they play but sound great.” The fact is that the first impression of seeing a person, even if for only a brief moment, colors how the mind enjoys and understands the music another person makes. A man only sounds better than a woman of equivalent talent when a person has first seen that the person playing is male. All of this is not to say that the world of classical music was terribly corrupt and chauvinistic. A woman playing the french horn really did sound worse than a man playing the same instrument. This was only true, though, because of the mind of the listener. Seeing a woman settling in to place to play a piece on the french horn would so color his perception that his mind would register an inferior performance.

This brief example shows the power of the first impression. Blink is a book dedicated to that first impression–the first two seconds of looking at someone or something. Gladwell argues, quite convincingly, that we need to have greater confidence in our first instincts. Our society tells us that the best decision is one that is labored over. When faced with a medical condition, a doctor will order test after test after test. A patient will consult another physician and seek a second opinion. Only when we have gathered an immense amount of data do we feel confident in moving forward. Yet so often it was our instincts, those first two seconds, that were correct all along. “The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

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But this “blink,” this first two seconds can also be deceptive, so Gladwell devotes some effort to understanding those moments when instincts betray us. The infamous New Coke provides just such an example. Dismayed to see that participants in blind taste tests were consistently choosing Pepsi over Coke, Coke executives decided to retire their product in favor of a new version that tasted much more like Pepsi. We all know how well it worked. Coke drinkers rebelled and immediately demanded the return of the former product. It was quickly reintroduced as Coca-Cola Classic. Where did Coke go wrong? They based too much on the “blink.” While Pepsi continues to be rated as tasting better in a single sip, this is not how people drink a can of soda–people drink it a can, glass or bottle at a time. Some find that Pepsi’s sweeter taste becomes nauseating with a larger quantity. Some people simply prefer Coke because they have always enjoyed it. The fact that Pepsi may taste slightly better does not mean they will switch drinks. Coke was led astray by the blink.

What Gladwell seeks to show is that those who have succeeded at becoming great decision makers are those who have mastered the art of “thin-slicing.” These people seek out and filter a very small number of important factors, ignoring a large quantity of other seemingly-important variables. He provides examples of firefighters and soldiers, doctors and marriage therapists, all of whom have found ways of cutting through the clutter and extracting only the most important information. This leaves us with a psychologist who can predict with great accuracy, based upon only a few minutes of observation, whether or not a marriage will last. It leaves us with a tennis coach who can predict almost perfectly whether a player will double-fault before the ball has even made contact with the racket.

This decision-making ability is not necessarily inherent in a person. Thin-slicing, Gladwell tells us, can be educated and controlled. A person who is intimately acquainted with his particular area of expertise, whether it be commanding a squad of soldiers or selecting members of an orchestra, will be more able to make successful split-second decisions.

While Blink is absolutely fascinating, the area where I would suggest Gladwell does not do so well is in forming a unified theory. He gathers a large amount of fascinating information and puts all of this within the two covers of a single book, but the reader may be left wondering how it all fits together. At times Gladwell presses forward with little proof. Too often he relies on a single study to create a theory that is wide-ranging in its scope and meaning. At one point he discusses an autistic man and from that theorizes that even people without mental handicaps can suffer temporary autism during moments of high stress. Yet this is not premised on hard evidence. So perhaps Gladwell stretches himself a little thin at times. Perhaps he attempts to take his theories just a little too far, venturing from what is factual into what is merely possible. The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s previous book, was, in my view, more complete and reached a more satisfying, holistic conclusion.

Despite this criticism, this is a very interesting book and one that, despite the complexity of the topic, is quite easy to read and understand. Despite dwelling on the psychological rather than the spiritual, I found there were some interesting applications a Christian could make, especially in regards to decision-making and even discernment, a topic that is of great interest to me. As Christians, we are prone to make decision-making a far more difficult procedure than it needs to be. I have often felt that we would do well to place greater confidence in our sanctified reasoning and in those first impressions–those “blinks.” I was also led to praise God for the immense and mind-bending power of the brain, an instrument whose depths humans will never fully understand, and yet an instrument that is far less powerful than the mind of the One who created it.

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