“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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. This is one of the reasons penalty kicks in soccer fascinate me so much. During the European Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Chelsea my buddy was worried because he said it’s a 50/50 chance whether the keeper goes in the right direction, but I think really good keepers are able to read the kicker’s body language on a subconscious level and get the block more often than not.

    Often split-second decisions — while driving on the freeway, for instance — are the result of training and repetition, but eventually the self-consciousness of such decisions evaporate into pure intuition to the point that you can no longer explain the reasons for your decision. Even if it’s something you used to do logically, now you just absorb the data and respond almost simultaneously without the intermediate unnecessary, like angelic apprehension.

    This seems to be true in practically every area of life, from playing sports to playing music. It also explains why all opinions are not of equal worth, not only in criticism, where the gut reaction of a skilled critic is more valuable than the reasoned opinion of a student, but also in “life,” where grandmotherly advice or folk wisdom is a distillation of a lifetime or even generations of experience.

    But where decisions involve other humans (like the Lincoln example), I think there may also be a psychic element, however subconscious. With experience, we learn to trust our gut instincts however illogical, though it seems women are usually more sensitive in this regard than men. So the husband will become frustrated with his wife for not being able to give him a good reason for her opinion, which often turns out to have been more insightful.

    Reply

  2. Nobody,

    “This seems to be true in practically every area of life, from playing sports to playing music. It also explains why all opinions are not of equal worth, not only in criticism, where the gut reaction of a skilled critic is more valuable than the reasoned opinion of a student, but also in “life,” where grandmotherly advice or folk wisdom is a distillation of a lifetime or even generations of experience.”

    You should have written the book for him. That’s almost exactly what he says.

    Reply

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