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Malcolm Gladwell

View Blink on AmazonThe subtitle ‘The power of thinking without thinking’ nicely captures the essence of this fascinating  book.

Malcolm Gladwell, who is the author of The Tipping Point, also reviewed here, sets out to explore why it is that sometimes the thinking in the blink of an eye provides greater understanding and insight than that which follows a mountain of analysis. He asserts that our subconscious is continuously collecting and processing information, much of it directing our actions but in ways totally unseen by our conscious mind.

The book begins with an introduction to some intriguing examples to illustrate this power of insight and introduces the idea of ‘thin slicing’, the ability we all have to evaluate a situation very quickly, capturing core information on which to base a decision.

Having introduced the concept Malcolm is at pains to explain that he is not simply advocating the abandonment of analysis in favour of gut reaction. Our instinctive judgements sometimes prove correct but at other times can lead us astray.  His key message is that they offer different approaches to creating understanding, and both analysis and intuition may be performed well or badly. However in some instances, particularly in a rapidly changing world, there is simply not the time for the laboured analysis required in an attempt to understand everything, and the only viable course of action is to thin slice.

The good news is that thin slicing skills can be learned and honed. We all collect this information, all of the time, the subtle skill is in being able to use it effectively.

This is a fascinating book with ideas of relevance to everyone dealing with change. What makes it particularly engaging is the breadth of examples used to illustrate the ideas. Many of these may have you rethinking not only what you think, but how you think.

For example there is a study made by insurance companies of the risk doctors face of being sued. The study identified that the risk had little if anything to do with the quality of the doctor, or even the number of mistakes they made. Rather the level of risk was a direct result of how much the doctor was liked by their patients. The risk was not a function of what the doctor was doing, but how they were being.

Another example brings into question the confidence we may have in conducting any kind of customer testing. There’s a fascinating account of the testing of types of brandy which deduced that the stated taste preference of customers had nothing to do with the brandy at all. Subconsciously and unbeknown to them it was the shape of the bottle that made the brandy taste better.

Once we become aware of this priming of our subconscious, we can use it to our advantage. For example studies have shown that test scores can be dramatically influenced simply be priming our minds with thoughts of success. Students answering questions from the Trivial Pursuit board game scored 55.6% after they had spent five minutes thinking what it would be like to be a professor. In contrast when they spent five minutes thinking about football hooligans they scored 42.6%. Just thinking about professors, primed them to achieve more.

Profoundly disturbing is the example of what can happen when we are pressured to rely on our subconscious when it has been miss-primed. The case of Amadou Diallo who was shot by four police officers is used to illustrate the effect similar to autism that is created when our intuition is inappropriately primed.

This is an engagingly written account that had me hooked as I read it cover to cover. It develops an interesting idea using examples that will set your thinking running in new directions. An enjoyable and stimulating read. It leaves you at one and the same time seeing things as far less and yet far more simple than they’ve ever been before.

Steve Unwin
November 2006

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