Book Review: ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell – Blink and you’ll miss it

If you can take your eyes for a moment off my epic brunch, let me tell you about ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell’s non-fiction exposé on split-second thinking.

This is territory also covered by books like ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’; the idea that there are two types of thinking conducted by our brains. One is the slow, conscious thought that we’re aware of as we sift through our options and select a course of action. The second is ‘fast’ thinking, which happens mostly in the unconscious brain and is much faster.

In my line of work – advertising – we are far more concerned with the latter. When you stand in a supermarket aisle, research has proven time and time again that your shopping choices aren’t that rational.

Most of the time, we are buying packaging covered in colours, images and fonts that we associate with a certain impression; gaudy colours with bubble text are often cheap and directed at kids, whereas a dark royal blue with golden serif laid reverently on top is for grown ups invested in quality. The fact that they contain the same biscuit really doesn’t matter to us, as it turns out.

What is ‘blink’ thinking?

Malcolm Gladwell has a message with ‘Blink’. This subsconscious thinking actually governs much more of our lives than we think. It isn’t a problem at all, but rather should be trusted in many cases, even if we can’t rationalise our decision. The subconscious brain knows something you don’t.

It’s quite a simple proposition. But the reason why ‘Blink’ makes for such fascinating reading is the litany of weird and wonderful case studies that Gladwell has tracked down to support his hypothesis.

He tells us about a million dollar statue that specialists were able to identify as a fake, but without being able to explain why. Games where your playing behaviour changes before you realise it has, or why it has.

More terrifyingly, he tells us about a man who can tell within seconds whether a couple will stay married or end in divorce up to fifteen years later.

Rather than this being a gift endowed to only a few select ‘superthinkers’, Gladwell explains that ‘blink’ thinking is something we all do. In some situations, he argues, it’s far better to follow what we’d call ‘our gut’ than to sit down and rationally go through all our decisions.

Can split-second thinking hold our attention?

If you follow this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a bit of a penchant for psychology books and brain-related reads. It’s just endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? Realising that you are so much less in control of your thoughts, decisions and actions than you would like to believe.

Luckily, even if you aren’t quite so much of a psychology nerd as I am, ‘Blink’ will still keep you gripped. Malcolm Gladwell is a career journalist and staff writer for The New York Times, so he knows a thing or two about keeping his readers engaged.

‘Blink’ is incredibly easy to read and really quite brief. Rather than going into lots of scientific detail, he is quite content to illustrate his theory with real-world examples that will have you going ‘well, I never!’ to the nearest horrified tube passenger. I read it in a couple of days.

When should you read ‘Blink’?

‘Blink’ is a great introduction to split-second, emotional thinking which delivers and interesting hypothesis and plenty of anecdotes to back it up.

For me, it was ever so slightly too light – I know that’s unusual to say, but I found that another ‘brain book’, David Eagleman’s ‘Incognito‘, had a much better balance in terms of anecdote and scientific detail for me, an interest lay-reader. I found myself wishing that Malcolm Gladwell went into a bit more depth.

Still, it’s very interesting and a very easy read. If you’re looking for a casual introduction to the way we think, this would be a great start.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell – Blink and you’ll miss it

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  1. Great review, Cat! I found Gladwell’s Outliers to have the same problem: it was interesting and a breeze to read, but it was just a bit too light on ideas, even for a fun read.

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  2. Hi Cat, I love Malcolm Gladwell and I share your fascination with psychology and how the mind works. As a writer, I’m particularly interested in how the subconscious plays (pun intended) in the creative process. Of course in ancient times, it was believed that the gods were the expressing themselves through artists (thus taking a lot of pressure off the artists!). The challenge is how to engage the subconscious. There is no “on” or “off” button for it (yet?) so we are left with having to trust it/ourselves. Not easy with our Western culture/mindset. But it (subconscious) is indeed so much smarter than we (conscious) are! I say this with the caveat that sometimes, through misguided motivations of protecting us, it guides us in a path that is not the best, but most of the time, it does know best!

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    1. Hi T.K.! I know what you mean – some of my absolute favourite books talk a lot about the subconcious and psychoanalysis especially. You might like Zeno’s Conscience. It’s one of my all time faves and a very funny satirical take on the subconscious in literature.

      I think my main issue with Blink on reflection is that it kind of states that sometimes ‘fast thinking’ is the right way to go, but other times it’s definitely not, and there’s essentially no way to know the difference! So very difficult to apply these learnings to real life! Do you trust your instincts because you’re making the best of your subconscious brain, or are you actually just taking a wild stab in the dark?

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