Blink by Malcolm Gladwell is a difficult book to review -- only because its theme defies being nailed down. Superficially, the book glorifies the snap judgment (blink), the elevation of quick, instinctive, possibly unconscious, or involuntary decision-making over slower, deliberate, careful consideration. Viewed in this light, Blink is the anti-Moneyball: there is even a section about a tennis coach Vic Braden who, we are told, has the surprising instinctive ability to predict when a player will serve a double fault, a task even computers couldn't master.
As the book continues, haze starts to surround this message. As Gladwell introduces the police officers who mistakenly thought a suspect was holding a gun (it was a wallet), and the market researchers who did not trust a musician called Kenna based on focus-group response, and others, the reader senses that Gladwell thinks snap judgments are sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. On that, the reader would prove correct: turning back to the Introduction, she finds, perhaps unexpectedly, the message that "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately." (p.14) So, Gladwell does not argue that all blink decisions are better, only that some are better; strictly speaking, he does not even claim that blink is better, only that it is not worse!
At times, Gladwell seems to share with Freakonomics a condescending attitude toward "experts". In the book's opening pages, he pitted intuition against a geologist whose scientific analysis led to the erroneous authentication of a fake kouros (a type of Greek statue). Some art historians were said to have an inkling that the statue was a fake from the first moment they set sight on it, so why, Gladwell asks on p.14, "didn't the experts at the Getty (Museum) also have a feeling of intuitive repulsion during the fourtheen months they were studying the piece?" The rhetorical no then burdens such experts with a costly, wrong decision.
At some point, the reader realizes that the heroes of the book -- be they the art historians, the tennis coach, the Herman Miller chair designer, or others -- are also experts in their own right. Just like in Freakonomics, those busting "conventional wisdom" are often themselves "experts". Gladwell goes one step further, and freely admits this. One of his side arguments is that blink can be trained. The key is to identify the small number of variables that determine the outcome, reducing complex data to simple terms.
This, too, eventually gets shrouded in smoke. Scientists at Coca Cola who rely on the snap-judgment taste test created a New Coke that became an expensive debacle. It becomes apparent that in the Gladwell universe, not all experts are bad. Some should be trusted and some not. On p.15, Gladwell asks "when should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them? Answering that question is the second task of Blink." It is this promise that Gladwell ultimately fell short of. By the end of the book, the reader is likely to have a few vague ideas and not much more.
For example, in Chapter 3, Gladwell introduces a car salesman Bob Golomb who, he explains, has learnt not to trust his first impression, i.e. the previously praised snap judgment. The message seems to be that one ought to recognize the types of problems that blink cannot solve. And yet, how did Golomb figure out that he should treat all customers as potential buyers and not prejudge them based on physical appearance? From stories of previous mistakes. So, recognizing when not to use blink requires that one first makes mistakes using blink. I, for one, find this advice difficult to follow.
Perhaps Gladwell does not intend to provide definitive answers to these questions. He has hit on a significant area of research in decision making, and has raised (self-)awareness of some important issues. Many of the anecdotes contribute to a lively discussion of these topics. I read the book enthusiastically and would recommend it to others. In particular, Blink holds considerable interest to those who practice statistical decision-making, a topic I will turn to in a future post as I've now exhausted your patience for one post.