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Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

As a writer, it is vital to read. Reading others’ works helps me explore different writing styles as well as understand new ideas. One book I just recently finished was Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I have been getting more and more interested in these sorts of books recently – books that shed light on the complex puzzle of how we as humans function. After all, our thought process is incredibly complicated from other species in existence.

Researchers believe that humans have between 50,000 – 70,000 thoughts every single day. To put that into perspective, that is as many as 49 thoughts per minute. Some of these thoughts are irrelevant while some of them weigh on us for days. So, how do these thousands of thoughts impact the actions we take? This is what Malcolm Gladwell’s book is ultimately about.

Gladwell starts off with the fundamental concept that humans make almost all decisions instantaneously. The only problem, though, is that they make those decisions based on their “gut instincts” rather than any justification. In today’s world, we always demand to understand the logic behind thoughts and choices. Gladwell says that in almost all of these cases where people make instantaneous decisions, there just may not be any logic that exists.

He provides many examples to prove this point, but the one I enjoyed most was that of the kouros – a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. In 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California with a flawless kouros from the sixth century BC. There are only about 200 of these statues in existence, and most of them are badly damaged. Becchina’s statue was in pristine condition – as a result, he was asking for $10 million. The Getty Museum directors were excited at the opportunity…but, they also wanted to proceed with caution, given the atypical condition of Becchina’s statue.

The directors engaged a professional geologist, who spent two days examining the entire surface of the statue with a high-resolution stereomicroscope, as well as a core sample of the statue itself with an electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence. After all these tests, the geologist concluded that the statue was definitely old. It was not some shoddy fake. The Getty was satisfied with the results of the tests.

However, when directors of the museum brought in experts on Greek culture to look at the statue, they immediately had negative reactions. Evelyn Harrison, one of the world’s foremost experts on Greek sculptures, saw the statue while she was in Los Angeles and blurted on first glance, “Sorry to hear this is yours.” She could not explain why she had that reaction, but she could just feel in her gut that something was wrong.

The directors of the Getty Museum decided to trust the scientific examinations of the statue (because they were backed by evidence) rather than the negative reactions of the Greek culture experts (because they had no evidence) and went forward with the purchase of the statue. Unfortunately, they found out later that the statue was indeed a fake. This was just one real case provided by Gladwell in his book that showed how humans make quick decisions on their instincts. All the Greek culture experts immediately knew that the statue was a fake – they just could not explain why.

Gladwell explains that these scenarios where we make instantaneous decisions are known as “thin-slicing.” Even though we may not know all the information required to make a decision, our brain is able to process enough of it to make the decision. We do have to be careful, though, as our decisions may not always end up being correct through thin-slicing. Gladwell illustrates this through examples such as the election of Warren Harding, the new “Coke,” and the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police.

Overall, I thought Gladwell was able to provide a unique perspective on how humans think and act. It was a perspective presented through many different concrete examples that were simple enough for common readers to understand. While people in the field of psychology might not be impressed with his simplified examples, I thought they were fairly interesting.

The only downside of the examples he presented (and perhaps the greatest downfall of the book as a whole) was that there was no flow between any of them. It felt like Gladwell jumped around between various examples without any theme or concept to tie them all together. Thus, while the cases were interesting, it made some of the reading confusing in the moment.

Nonetheless, for common readers interested in how humans think and act, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking as it will certainly provide a very different, thought-provoking perspective.

Human thoughts

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