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Book Recommendation: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink

I can’t recommend the book Blink enough. (I should mention that my friend, Brian Schwartz, recommended it to me.) I actually listened to it on CD, and I highly recommend that experience, as well.

Blink is about–well, Mr. Gladwell, says it best:

It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, “Blink” is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.”

He goes on to cite numerous psychological research experiments, news events and other anecdotes that illustrate how humans make split-second decisions.

One of the more interesting illustrations to me was on the work of psychologist, John Gottman. You may recall Gottman was popular in the 90s for his relationship studies. He wrote Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. Gottman’s work is largely based on Paul Eckman’s research on microexpressions that reveal human emotions. Gottman is able to “thin slice” his subjects’ facial expressions and determine (with almost 90 percent accuracy) whether their relationship will be successful or not. The secret lies in his ability to measure the ratio of negative to positive emotions revealed in the couple’s rapidly changing facial expressions. The higher the level of contempt revealed during the couple’s videotaped conversations, the less their chance of success.

Another interesting segment involves the advertising campaign of Pepsi. Remember the “Pepsi Challenge”? Everyone taking the Pepsi Challenge liked the taste of Pepsi better than Coke. This led Coca-Cola executives to doubt their product. Maybe, they thought, Coke should taste better. They brought out “New Coke,” and the resulting backlash from loyal Coke drinkers was disastrous. Coke fans hated “New Coke.” They hated “New Coke” so much that the company had to reintroduce “Classic Coke.” In this case, the two-second taste test was not necessarily indicative of a better product. Most people, it turns out, will judge sweeter tastes as tasting better than something slightly more bitter. Yet, the slightly bitter taste of Coke ends up being quite enjoyable when drinking a whole can. Here a snap judgment–the Pepsi taste test–was accurate in one sense, but not relevant.

Gladwell’s book has been criticized, and perhaps rightly so, for “not going anywhere.” I’ll admit Gladwell’s vignettes are at times more thought-provoking than they are useful. (It should be noted that his books are found in the marketing or self-help sections, not the science section.) What he does succeed in doing is making the reader aware of the power of split-second decisions. Because our rapid cognitions can be very right or very wrong, we need to find ways to improve the quality of these types of decisions and to better understand how to control them.

This book, despite its limitations, is responsible for my renewed interest in the state of psychology today…more on that subject later.


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