Malcolm Gladwell: Part 2 — The story of first impressions
Today, I will continue the second part of my review on Gladwell’s books: Blink and the tipping point. Both of them are following Gladwell’s style of writing and storytelling: Charming, drawing, and full of details and lessons on social sciences. They aren’t self-help books, they are giving you facts, posing some big questions, and you have to figure out the answer yourself. In my review, there will be a summary, tiny spoilers, and opinions along the way. You can use it as a good judgment if you haven’t yet read any of Gladwell books, or you can use it as an argument that we can friendly discussion in the comment section below.
Let’s get started.
I will start with Blink, the less interesting book from the two. Blink is all about the psychology of first impressions. I love psychology, especially on the difference between conscious and unconscious minds. Blink is one of them. Blink gives scientific and anecdotal evidence on our rapid cognitions, are they good or bad? Can we trust someone when they say that they are going with their gut? Can our snap judgment and first impression be educated and controlled? We will find it out in Blink.
Before going deeper into the review, if you love this kind of topic, there is another good popular book on the conscious and unconscious minds from the Economist Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow. Daniel calls the “blinking” mind system 1, and the other system 2. System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Blink of Gladwell will focus on the fast thinking of system 1. (I will give a review on Kahneman book in a near future)
My review can be divided into four parts: The power of Blink, the cases when Blinking goes wrong, can we train Blink? And the lesson from Blink.
The power of Blink: In this part, we will go through examples of cases when we use our instinct to get good judgments. The book starts with the story of an art historian when looking at a statue and using his instinctive sensing to hunch to conclude that it was amiss. That first thought had popped into his mind bring worries to the art museum, where a team of experts found out the sculpture was a fraud after fourteen months. This demonstrated how powerful our blink system is. The book goes on with a case on marriages, can we judge a relationship by just looking at a conversation of a couple? The answer is yes, and there are four signatures of emotional information from couple interactions that we can use to determine whether the relationship is in trouble. Those are defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Where contempt is the most important and the most dangerous one. If someone speaks to their partner in a selfish, superior plane, the relationship is more damaging. Then, the book continues with the cases when we can know the skill of a doctor by just talking to him/her, or how a film director chooses a fit actor for his movie? Reading until this part, you start to think, we might actually go with our gut. Blinking is indeed a powerful tool.
However, not every time our instinct is correct. There are cases when it goes wrong. It is when we are surrounded every day by old conservative culture and stereotypes. It is when our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. The example can go with the way people linking white with good, black with bad and violent. Students will rate the professor biased by whether or not they were tall, white, and attractive. This also leads to an error in our minds toward problems on social racism. It is also when a car salesman wrongly judges a poorly unfashionable customer when he/she walks into a luxury showroom, that often results in an embarrassing to the buyer, and a loosing of potential customer to the seller. The most problematic is when Americans chose their president based on how he looks, which the book gave an example of Warren Harding, an attractive man, and the worst president in U.S. history.
What would be the next situation when blink goes wrong? It is when we are in a high-pressure context. I find this part interesting since there is a saying, if in an argument, who raising their voice is the one first to lose their cool. There is a range in which stress improves performance, it is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. At this stage, we have an arousal moment when our mind works with its best. However, when we get too aroused and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information that we start the become useless. “After 145 beats per minute, complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult.… At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing.… The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain — the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s (all mammals have that part of the brain) — reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive. Blood is withdrawn from our outer muscle layer and concentrated in core muscle mass. The evolutionary point of that is to make the muscles as hard as possible — to turn them into a kind of armor and limit bleeding in the event of injury. But that leaves us clumsy and helpless and mind blind”. That is why we should never try to argue with an angry person. “Have you ever tried to discuss with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it. … You might as well try to argue with your dog.” More important than that, those kinds of situations normally happen with people who need a clear mind the most, such as the police. When in a snap moment of a second, a policeman has to decide whether he should pull the trigger or not, but how can he/she in his mind when their heartbeats are all above 175?
With tools that so powerful, but also dangerous, can “blink” be trained? The answer is yes. There are so many stories to prove this point in the book, but I want to give an example of the art of mind-reading. It is when someone can train to read a person’s face and tell whether what they are thinking. It is a scientific field developed by two professors at Harvard where they map the movement of muscle on the face into groups. As one of them stated: Faces — even the faces of horses — held valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations. Human faces are naked and are an enormously rich source of information about emotion. In the book, it is demonstrated, if, with a little bit of training, someone can “blink” by looking on another person’s face. What if the whole police force is well educated with this delicate art of mind-reading?
So, what the lesson from the blink? I think there are plenty. Reading until this part, I guess you can say that not only do doctors and generals and coaches and furniture designers and musicians and actors and car salesmen and countless others use blink daily, you are using it as well. We need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments, but we can also look into the context, the environment, the way of our culture, stereotypes controlled us. That is when we ask our self, should we trust our gut? Do we need more or fewer data? Or should we start training our brain for a better judgment?
Blink for me is a quick read. The book is quite dry and sometimes you can see the scientific arguments there are imperfect. However, the book uses simple language, leave us with a swift read. You can even finish it within a day, I finished it overnight. That is why whatever people might say about it, it doesn’t take up too much of your time reading it. Maybe you should also spend a night too, to dig into the book to find out the psychological aspect of our first impression.
Now, let’s talk about the tipping point. The book, I might say, a really really good book if you are into marketing.