I enjoyed my first book by Malcolm Gladwell (What the Dog Saw) so much, that I had no hesitation in embarking on Blink, a book length study of the work of the sub-conscious mind, especially its ability to undertake analysis and make decisions long before the conscious mind is even aware of the issue. He speaks of what happens in the first two seconds, or in a blink – and this book is about how powerful that can be, how it can be a force for understanding and effective action, and how, sometimes, it can be dangerous and must be tamed.
He starts with the purchase of a Greek statue from the 6th century BC, a kouros, for a cool $10 million. Naturally, antique statues of great beauty from ancient Greece being rather rare, they were cautious. They examined its provenance with great care, undertook exhaustive comparative analyses with other statues of technical and aesthetic points, and even commissioned chemical analysis of the marble’s surface. All was well, and, after 14 months’ investigation, they agreed to buy it. But then the trouble started – and it didn’t start with some obscure point of detail, either to do with the statue or where it came from: it started with three experts who, within seconds of seeing it for the first time, said “it’s a fake” or “don’t pay the money”. A chorus of dismay then grew, and indeed a careful fake was uncovered, with many errors of technique, handling and style, and provenance. But what started the story was the unconscious mind of three individuals telling them – and often they could not provide evidence – that this was not what it seemed.
When [three experts] looked at the kouros and felt an "intuitive repulsion", they were absolutely right. In the first two seconds of looking - in a single glance - they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months. Blink is a book about those first two seconds.
In a famous gambling experiment, subjects are invited to bet on red or blue cards; the blue are generally the better choice, and the red, in the long term, would be very bad for your wealth. After about 50 cards, most people have a hunch that something’s wrong with red, and after about 80 they’re sure, and are able to articulate it and provide evidence. But after only 10 cards, respondents were not only showing stress responses (sweaty palms, for example) to the red cards, but they altered their behaviour as well, picking fewer and fewer red cards. In other words, the subconscious was not only telling them what the problem was, it was altering their behaviour, long before they were even conscious that there was issue.
There are many more examples, from face reading in thin slices of time the uncontrollable reactions we make when we lie for example, or when we say something nice to our partner but are actually contemptuous, to fire-fighters taking “irrational” but accurate decisions to leave a building that was about to collapse, or policemen who relied on their instincts and shot an innocent man (who, moreover, was exhibiting absolutely standard submissive, innocent behaviour). It turns out that your subconscious mind is awesomely good at some things, and you should trust it – you get some really good feedback in the first two seconds of an interview, for example, and after two seconds your judgement will often be indistinguishable from the results of detailed study. But when you are stressed and in danger, you limit your information gathering and cut out quality evidence or stay focused on one thing – and you can make bad mistakes. So police and army personnel need to practice being stressed and managing it, so that when the real deal happens, they don’t get stressed and can handle all the information available, taking better decisions.
The case of Abbie Conant, trombonist, illustrates one of the dangers of relying on the first two seconds’ of information: you're programmed to reject certain evidence according to rules and associations – eg, on skin colour, race, or gender. Conant auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, behind a screen, so the audition was “blind”. Not only did she win, but she won by acclaim, and the music director sent everyone else home, without even hearing them. Everyone trusted their musical judgement, in the first few seconds, and no one had any countervailing information because of the screen. But when they found they had selected a woman, they spent years trying to get rid of her, trying to prove she wasn’t strong enough to blow the big notes, they demoted her, they criticised on grounds that are patently laughable, then when forced to accept her, they paid her less. If the audition hadn’t been blind, the subconscious mind would have seen her, decided against her, and refused to hear her music for what it was. A different two seconds – an aural experience – gave a diametrically different result.
This is a wonderful book, closely argued, full of examples and evidence, and in no way a soft invitation to trust your instinct or arguing for any kind of para-intellectual approach: but explaining the workings of the subconscious mind, pointing out its strengths, and warning of its weakness. It's full of human interest, but it’s fascinating if you have any interest in how you make decisions, and why sometimes they go staggeringly right or wrong. Blink!