January 2005

Malcolm Gladwell

A long look at snap judgments
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Let others probe the grand sweeps of human history—Malcolm Gladwell is resolved to study moments. At least the significant ones. In his 2000 bestseller, The Tipping Point, he examined conditions that sparked trends. In his new book, Blink, which he subtitles "The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking," the New Yorker staff writer focuses on the astounding reliability and occasional blind spots of snap judgments. It turns out that we know more than we think we know, even if we don't know why.

Blink has three aims, says Gladwell: "to demonstrate that decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately; to help decide when we should and shouldn't trust our instincts; and to show that snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled."

It was his own unsettling encounters with snap judgments that led him to write Blink, Gladwell tells BookPage by phone from his office. "I had grown my hair longer," he begins, "and as soon as I [did that], my life began to change. I started getting speeding tickets and harassed at the airports. Then one day, I was walking down 14th Street, and these police in a big van cut me off and jumped out and surrounded me because they were convinced that I was this rapist who'd been in the area. It's an old story, of course. Many African-Americans have it much tougher than I do. It was just a sort of reminder that there was an awful lot going on in the first couple of seconds. People were seizing on things about me and drawing very, very substantial, non-trivial conclusions. That's what got me thinking that this was interesting."

Exactly how much is going on in that first little moment? This ability to make rapid and accurate assessment flourishes everywhere, as Gladwell's book illustrates. In one instance, art experts were able to instantly recognize a phony ancient statue even though scientists who had studied it for months were sure it was authentic. In another, a general acting on battlefield instincts during a war game ran circles around his opponents who had tons of pertinent data and fast computers to analyze it. Gladwell introduces a researcher who can predict the likelihood of a married couple divorcing by eavesdropping on a few seconds of their conversation and noting their facial expressions.

"The thing that really struck me the most from my book," Gladwell says, "was this idea that more information does not necessarily yield a better decision. I've come to take that very seriously. I now no longer feel the need to exhaustively mine every available source of information before making a decision. I now believe that I have to spend more time analyzing what I know rather than going out and adding to what I know."

A good deal of Blink is devoted to what can be gleaned from and induced by facial expressions. "This source often reveals much more than words," the author contends. "I watched one of the [Bush-Kerry presidential] debates with the sound off to try and get a sense of what they were communicating nonverbally. It was quite striking to watch those things because you realize there was so much going on, on that level. . . . They're telling you a lot. I think you learn something profound about people but you only really see it when you remove the distraction of their words. You learn about their self-confidence and level of conviction. I think you learn something about their honesty. All those things are apparent when you cleanse the moment."

Once he had the "blink" concept in mind, Gladwell says, he had no trouble finding examples to support it. "Books like this are kind of organic. You follow certain ideas and see what happens. I could write another book tomorrow on the same topic that would be completely different. There's a kind of freedom in writing this kind of conceptual book [even though] there's not a clear road map."

So how, then, are we to regard our instincts? Well, we ought to take them seriously, Gladwell says. "They can be really good, or they can be terrible and mislead us horribly. But in both cases, we have an obligation to take them seriously and to acknowledge they're playing a role. The mistake is to dismiss them."

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By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316172325

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