Malcolm Gladwell in a blink

Every book should eat its own dog-food. At least, thats my storyline for a “blink” reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (I went to a reading by him, but have not read his book – so this is a quick reaction).

Gladwell’s book is about Rapid Cognition (or immediate reactions, instant decisions and first imprsessions) – how both science and culture do not appreciate the importance of rapid cognition as much as slower, more deliberate decision processes.

The material was not new (if you ever took a college level course in social psychology, then the content itself is old hat). Gladwell, however, has a knack for framing a powerful argument, weaving together dry, academic Social Psychology research, disguised as stories from popular culture. He is also a great storyteller.

Gladwell thinks that both science and society have traditionally paid more attention to the slower, more deliberate decision making processes as compared to the instant reastions, and rapid decisions that people make all the time. He focuses on rapid, emotional decisions (e.g., I like this chair, I don’t trust this person), and how such judgements are equally valid, synthesize a lot of information and are often deeply reflective of our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Gladwell’s theme can be summarized by the diagram below.


A: Slow, Cognitive: Human decision making is mostly understood in terms of this slow, deliberate model of decision making.

B: Slow, Emotional: When people think too much about their emotional reactions, they might change their minds. Gladwell cites an experiment asking people to choose painting with & without justification. Second group (that had to justify their emotional reactions) liked their paintings much less 6 months later.

C: Rapid, Cognitive: Rapid cognitive reactions often form the basis of expert decision making. For example an expert, who can immediately judge if a painting is a fake or not, is making a rapid, cognitive judgement.

D: Rapid, Emotional: This cell is the crux of Gladwells’ argument. Rapid, emotional decisions happen far more often than it is realized. People make up their minds to like/dislike something instanthly (for example, whether to trust someone or not) seemlessly synthsizing information from current situation and past experience and learning. Such decisions can be indicative of our true thoughts and feelings, but can also be problematic. For example, stereotyping a race, or group falls into the catgeory of such decisions.

5 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell in a blink

  1. I was intrigued when I first heard of Blink, but then I started finding reviews. From what I read, I have many of the same impressions as you: it’s not new and he’s a good storyteller. As someone who’s very interested in how all modes of decision-making work and, more importantly, are influenced, my decision was that the book is not worth my time reading ;)

  2. I do not know about this book but “the Tipping Point” is definitively a book from Gladwell I will recommend. It was a required reading for a class on diffusion of innovations.
    I think it is even a classic on the topic!


  3. I actually had to read the book for a course in decision-making and found it to be very useful. Having took a course in pyschology prior to reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, it helped refresh terms that I had acquired and the stories made alot more sense to me whereas if I never took pyschology some things would not have clicked instantly. I would although recommend this book to a friend. The book in my opinion is excellent!

  4. My view is that it misses a couple of critical points. It is largely indisputable that people use rapid cognition. Gladwell however argues that in some circumstances it is the correct response (to be fair, he does also talk about some of the problems that may occur).

    What I found less convincing is the idea that slow deliberative processes are flawed due to some kind of informational overload: in my view, the errors are actually due to the person making the judgment being too close to the subject being evaluated and therefore developing all kinds of other emotional biases (such as e.g. attachment) preventing him or her from correctly evaluating the situation. Switching back to rapid cognition based on pattern recognition will not produce a better result in such situations: it will only occur where a degree of detachment is introduced from both emotional and rational cognitive biases.

    See my post on this here:

Comments are closed.