Which is more likely to be correct: a snap judgment based on initial impressions, or a decision made after careful study and deliberation? Against conventional wisdom, New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell argues that the human brain is wired to make high-quality snap judgments in many situations. In fact, knowing too much and thinking too hard can lead to the wrong decision, since someone with time to consider all the possibilities is more likely to consider irrelevant or extraneous information. As has become his habit in books like The Tipping Point, Gladwell synthesizes anecdotes and research results into a revolutionary thesis, anticipating objections and implicating his own common sense along the way. Blink cements his position as the most engaging essayist working at the intersection of science and culture.
The bias against snap judgments does have a basis in fact. It's not the gut feeling of the layman that counts, says Gladwell, but that of the expert, the gut that's been trained to feel correctly through thousands of relevant experiences. As an example, he cites a Greek statue acquired with great fanfare by the J. Paul Getty Museum. When the new acquisition was proudly unveiled to leading authority Evelyn Harrison, she blurted out, "I'm sorry." Her instantaneous feeling that the statue was a forgery wasn't based on a careful examination or any quantifiable factors, just her sense that something was wrong with the artifact in front of her. As it turned out, Gladwell says, the museum's team of scientists had been fooled because they trusted scientific judgment over aesthetic judgment. Harrison's two seconds with the statue were more valuable than their 14 months of work.
Gladwell finds support for his thesis in studies of dorm rooms, war games, racial preferences, speed dating, facial expressions, and tennis serves. Snap judgments take place inside a "locked room," he says; subjects can't describe the process because it isn't based on reasons. When successful, the decision-makers are "thin-slicing," breaking a situation down into specific and basic units. Some snap judgments, however, go horribly awry: One key example is the 41 shots police fired at unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. In such moments of stress, tunnel vision and hormonal response short-circuit the brain's ability to intuit the pertinent information. Gladwell portrays the power and peril in that blink of an eye.