Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


Blink:
The Power of Thinking
Without Thinking

Malcolm Gladwell,
Little, Brown,
277 pp.; $25.95

At the staggering cost of some $250 million, the U.S. armed forces hosted war games in July and August of 2002 to road-test a new theory of war. The idea, as one analyst put it, was not to crush the enemy's "war-fighting capability" but to go after his "war-making capability." Defense whiz kids had decided that since any potential foe's military is connected to its economic system, which is tied in turn to the local culture, it would be possible to understand the links between all of those systems and effectively paralyze a country by severing them.

To test this theory, the Joint Forces of Command enlisted the services of a retired marine, Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper. Van Riper was to play the part of a "rogue military commander who had broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf and was threatening to engulf the entire region in war." The U.S. army was called in to neutralize this threat before things got really bad. Van Riper's forces were named the Red Team, while the good guys were saddled with the Blue Team label.

On the first day of the game, Blue Team flooded the zone. They poured tens of thousands of troops into the region and stationed an entire aircraft carrier group "just offshore of Red Team's home country." They issued an eight-point ultimatum to the mad general (the gist of which was, roughly, surrender now, you stone-age has-been) and then started to sever the links that they believed were vital for Van Riper to conduct a war. They blew up microwave towers and destroyed fiber optic lines, leaving him without means of fast, secure communication with his troops.

And then Van Riper embarrassed them. He used motorcycle couriers and codes hidden in prayers to send and receive information. To land and launch aircraft while maintaining radio silence, Red Team used lighting systems a la World War II. Van Riper put a fleet of small boats in the Gulf to track the U.S. ships and then launched a surprise attack, bombarding the aircraft group in an "hour-long assault with a fusillade of cruise missiles."

When the attack was over, 16 ships had been shot out of the water. Malcolm Gladwell explains that if this had "been a real war instead of just an exercise, twenty thousand American servicemen and women would have been killed before their own army had even fired a shot." The secret to Van Riper's deadly success, says Gladwell, is that he issued orders and then trusted the judgment of his troops to carry them out or modify as needed. It was a triumph that many economists would admire—of the loosely coordinated choices of thousands of individuals over planned and programmed design of the world's most sophisticated war machine.

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell (the New Yorker writer whose earlier—brief—tenure at the American Spectator preceded mine by over a decade) has written an entertaining but slight, and somewhat frustrating, book about human judgment. Blink flips back and forth between explaining the role of our subconscious in making decisions and arguing that we often get in the way of our perfectly good snap judgment by thinking too much.

Confused? Then let me explain it in a more Gladwellian way. Wire a dozen test subjects, give them two decks of playing cards spread out on separate tables, and tell them that their pay for this experiment is directly tied to their winnings. Deck one has been rigged to be expensive: because of the values assigned to the cards, the potential winnings are great but the losses are catastrophic. Deck two is set up so that by turning cards over, subjects will accumulate modest but real gains without the possibility of staggering losses.

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By the time the test subjects have turned over 80 cards, they will clearly prefer deck two and be able to explain this to researchers. But here's the fun part: they will start to favor the safe deck over the dangerous one as early as the tenth card or thereabouts. Because we can measure such things as perspiration and heart rate, we know that their bodies recognize that deck two is better long before it consciously dawns on them. The black box that we call the subconscious has decided to steer them toward the best bet without them even knowing it.

Gladwell cites a small mountain of examples—both anecdotal and quantifiable—to argue that our "gut" does a much better job of making decisions than we're willing to give it credit. In fact, we often go badly wrong by trying to explain how we arrived at a conclusion. Unable to reconstruct the logical chain that let our subconscious to go in a certain direction, we fall into the "storytelling problem" and make something up that seems plausible.

It is impossible to read this book and not grant that Gladwell is on to something, but it's a smaller something than he realizes. Granted, most of us are less logical than we would like to believe. Also granted, if we had to process every bit of data-think through the implications of every decision, we would be just as paralyzed and ineffective as the Blue Team. But these are hardly new revelations. Folk wisdom has long preserved a stubborn anti-intellectualism ("That boy's got too much book learnin' ") and skepticism about grand plans ("Too many cooks … ") that are now given scientific support and spotlighted by the New Yorker's merry trickster.

One of the traits that has come out in Gladwell's many media appearances to promote the book is his relative nonchalance when faced with contradictions. In one chapter, he will explain how seemingly trivial things such as tone of voice or facial tics can give us a window into somebody's very soul. And then in the next, he will completely discount snap judgments if he doesn't like the outcome. Blink ends with a story about how women have managed to get ahead in modern orchestras after musicians' unions insisted on blind auditions. It's an interesting case study, and instructive in its own way, but like many of his stories it has nothing to do with the "power of thinking without thinking."

Jeremy Lottis the foreign press critic for GetReligion.org.


Related Elsewhere:

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

An excerpt, the author's road schedule, and more information is available from the publisher.

The author's website has links to his New Yorker articles, information about his books, and his contact information.

Reviews and commentary elsewhere include:

Quick decisions with the blink of an eye | Possessing the ability to assess situations with lightning speed can be a very useful skill in the fast-paced business world. (Miami Herald, Feb. 21, 2005)
The Blink Presidency | Bush's supporters would argue that his instincts seem to be paying off. Bush is the ultimate "Blink" President, to use author Malcolm Gladwell's catchy term, and recent title, for instantaneous, subconscious decision making. (Joe Klein, TIME, Feb. 20, 2005)
Thought: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell | Not coincidentally, "ephemeral and unpersuasive" are the two epithets that spring immediately to mind on reading Blink. (Times, London, February 06, 2005)
'Blink': Enjoyable, but not credible | Beware of breezy books with one-word titles from big publishers. Like one-named pop singers, they're often the end-product of a canny marketing process, an effort to present as unique and special something ordinary and familiar. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 06, 2005)
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Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review, appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

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In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) | Remembering a philosopher who never forgot about death. (Oct. 19, 2004)