Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book Review: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

Blink's important.

Reading this short sentence, you have formed certain conceptions about it. These instantaneous impressions may be shaped by your experience with my prior book reviews; your experience with books; your experience with Malcolm Gladwell works; your experience with rapid eye movements; your interpretation of "important;" and a variety of other factors.

The fact that you have already developed opinions about this review points to what Gladwell calls in Blink "the adaptive unconscious" (p. 11), although he did not invent the term.

"This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to function as human beings. The only way that human beings could ever have survived as a species for as long as we have is that we've developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that's capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information." (pp. 11-12; emphasis supplied.)

Gladwell identifies its power but does not blindly endorse it. "Blink is not just a celebration of the power of the glance, however. I'm also interested in those moments when our instincts betray us." (p. 14.) Gladwell offers examples on both sides of this tension.

For example, Gladwell provides an amazing study helmed by John Gottman of the University of Washington. "Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent." (p. 22.) You'll have to read the book to discover the tell-tale sign.

What Gottman does "teach[es] us a great deal about a critical part of rapid cognition known as thin-slicing. 'Thin-slicing' refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patters in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.... Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling. But it's also what we find most problematic about rapid cognition." (p. 23.)

Gladwell also explores these problematic aspects in Blink. In a somewhat humorous example, he offers the case of President Warren G. Harding. Voters evidently believed he would be a good president because he looked presidential. "[H]is 'lusty black eyebrows contrasted with his steel-gray hair to give the effect of force, his massive shoulders and bronzed complexion gave the effect of health.'" (p. 74, quoting Harding biographer Francis Russell.) However, in this instance, Gladwell says they were fooled by their adaptive unconscious or thin-slicing. Looking presidential didn't equate to being a good president. "He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history." (p. 75.) Gladwell calls this sort of judgment by appearances the "Warren Harding error." (p. 91).

On the flipside, Gladwell argues against the common belief that having more data and more time to analyze it necessarily results in better decision-making. (pp. 13-14.) "In good decision-making, frugality matters." (p. 141.)

Ultimately, Gladwell comes to a balance. "[T]ruly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking." (p. 141.)

Gladwell continues with this theme of balance: "[W]e are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don't know where our first impressions come from our precisely what they mean, so we don't always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.... Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn't seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition." (pp. 251-52.)

This book has significance across myriad professions and life experiences. I believe the implications for trial lawyers are vast, although decision-making in trials received scant if any attention in Blink. Trial attorneys must be mindful of the thin-slicing being performed by jurors (and trial judge) with each witness, for example. Moreover, first impressions matter so much that the initial contacts with the jury--the voir dire process [asking questions to elicit juror bias] and opening statement--must be deemed the most crucial aspects of a trial.

This omission leads to a mild criticism of the book. The book inordinately focuses on police (and military) procedures and reactions, which are too specific to have broad application. More people are likely to have contact with the judicial system, as a party, juror, judge, attorney, witness or court staff, than being involved in a police shoot-out. At least that is my "thin-sliced" conclusion borne from the personal bias of my profession.

Highly recommended.

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