Blink Again

blink

Having just recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I find myself struggling to come away with much of an impression other than: “Wow, those were some really fascinating examples of snap judgements we normally wouldn’t consider to be reliable sources of evidence.” But as for the core argument, is there some sort of meta-advice in taking Blink as a “blink” of insight into the value of intuition in decision-making?

As with much of Gladwell’s other writing (allegedly, as I haven’t read more than a couple articles of his), the anecdotes and stories take center stage. So as a reading experience, it was pleasurable and entertaining. But sometimes those stories can get in the way of making a straightforward case overall. I couldn’t tell for much of the book what Gladwell was proposing – did these stories illuminate a skill at snap judgement that we can all unlock to improve our understanding of the world? Or did they simply point out a varied series of interesting and hereto unknown phenomena that had little application outside of the situations and individuals involved?

Armed with only a small collection of insights provided by those examples, I find it difficult to apply outside of evaluating ancient Greek statues, avoiding the pitfalls of New Coke, or predicting the longevity of marriages (ok, that last one is actually widely applicable). It’s the classic double-edged sword of using stories and examples to build an argument. Stories as evidence provide concrete examples and anchor the argument to tangible reality (as well as appeal to our story-telling natures). But it is also easy to inductively generate a theory based on those stories that exceeds their ability to adequately support it.

I do give Gladwell credit for not stepping beyond the strength and scope of his examples to form some sort of grand narrative about human intuition. Given some of the fantastical-seeming stories he provided, a lesser author might have succumbed to such literary temptation. But I’m still left wondering if the book would be more accurately portraying its contents if it were instead called “Blink: Case Studies in Human Intuition” rather than the grandiose-sounding “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”

It wasn’t until the afterword that I really came across anything that I could consider a coherent conclusion to the stories contained in Blink. Gladwell essentially cautioned (perhaps as a reflection on a possible popular reaction to his book that “I don’t have to think anymore”) that we can’t know in advance which situations are one in which human intuition (Blink) is the better approach, or a more systematic, scientific, and logic/evidence based argument is better. But whether that balance is something like 50/50 or 1/99 (Blink/Logic) is completely avoided by Gladwell.

I fully understand the ‘physics envy’ that a lot of social sciences have that drive them toward relying so heavily on quantitative analysis that it saps the life out of some of the insights of the field. But for the average person making decisions in everyday life, a book like Blink seems to encourage behavior that isn’t really in dire need of support. Are there vast legions of people spending too much time methodically analyzing important decisions? Or do we more often abandon the effort needed to make those careful choices and ‘wing-it’ by using our intuition even when we probably shouldn’t? I’d argue the latter is far more representative.

In the end, I’m glad I took the time to read Gladwell’s Blink. It was an enjoyable read, and I did glean some nuggets of insight from some of the examples (ironically, ones with rigorous scientific backing for testing falsifiability). But when the Afterward was the first time I got a glimpse of the weak conclusion, it was a lot of content and build-up for little payoff. Maybe in my read-through I missed something crucial to Gladwell’s argument, which I am certainly willing to concede. Or maybe my expectations were set for something that Gladwell never intended to provide (beyond a parsimonious “you must decide when to Blink“).

But any true insights provided by Gladwell’s book didn’t last more than the blink of an eye.

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