“I didn’t like his face.”
It’s an apocraphal story of Abraham Lincoln and a favorite for preachers everywhere. As a young lawyer, Lincoln allegedly once rejected a prospective employee on the grounds that he didn’t like the man’s face. When his fellow lawyers incredulously pressed him to explain, Lincoln responded that every man older than 40 deserves their face.
In his latest offering, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell examines the snap judgements we make every day and our own inability to understand what prompts us to make them. From the experts who had a vague intuition that an artwork was a fake–an intuition that was later confirmed–to the rest of us, who will choose one product over another because of the packaging and context in which we see it, subconscious judgements affect every aspect of our existence, including race (as Project Implicit reveals).
Much of Gladwell’s work does focus on the fact that these snap judgements can be trained, which often separates the expert from the rest of us. When music industries heard Kenna sing, they knew he was special. The rest of us, though, are still catching on. Yet there is one qualification to this: in one study regarding our responses to jam, college students and experts ranked six jams nearly the same. However, when a different set of college students was asked to describe their reasons for their preferences, the similarities went away. “By making people think about jam,” Gladwell writes, “[the study] turned them into jam idiots.” Sometimes, our unreflective judgements are the most reliable.
To draw a parallel, it seems Gladwell demonstrates what deconstructionists have contended with respect to literature: that the unconscious perceptions of authors shape their texts and meanings. Rather than descend into the world of suspicion, however, Gladwell repeatedly exhorts the reader to have charity toward the subjects of his examples.
Like The Tipping Point, Blink could have been 75 pages shorter. But Gladwell’s style is engaging and readable, which makes the repetition somewhat more bearable. Regardless, Gladwell has produced a provocative analysis of a difficult and intriguing aspect of the human experience.