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blink – Malcolm Gladwell: Book Report!

June 18, 2009 | 2 Minute Read


I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books lately. A lot has been written about Malcolm Gladwell’s books so I figured I’d grab a bunch from the library. I just finished reading “blink.” I haven’t read The Tipping Point or Outliers just yet. Anyway, I thought I’d write a quick review.

Blink tells the story of our subconscious (Gladwell uses “unconscious” which kinda bugs me) brain’s ability to make split-second decisions. Basically, he argues that we’ve evolved to “thin-slice” certain experiences (recognizing when a fake statue just doesn’t look right or hearing a singer who turns out to be a natural). That ability can be used in other contexts if we could just determine the important variables and block out everything else.

Gladwell is a really good writer; his stories are interesting and they flow well. Unfortunately, the actual substance feels like it lacks the scientific rigor that I’m used to. For example, he has a chapter on the aforementioned thin-slicing – only taking in the important elements of a situation and deciding based on those. Later, he discounts thin-slicing because it leads to us stereotyping entire ethnicities and cultures. He gives an example where music executives hear a singer who they know is a natural hit (and cites Fred Durst as an expert, which makes me throw up in my mouth a little). Unfortunately the executives fail when it turns out that actual listeners don’t like the artist. Another story is about a wargame that the army set up where the advanced system succumbed to paralysis by analysis. It was a really weak example of thin-slicing and had very little to do with the theory he described earlier. I think he just wrote that chapter to fill up the book.

The book is full of inconsistencies and it seems like Gladwell is trying to tie everything into a cohesive theory. The thing is he fails at it pretty horribly. What we end up with is a bunch of nice stories and no overarching theory of anything. They’re just stories. Are they interesting? Yeah, but they contradict each other and end up making the book weaker in its narrative.

As a counter-example, Duncan Watts has a way of writing interesting stories and linking them all together in Six Degress (how appropriate). Also fun to note is that I believe there’s some kind of nerd feud going on between Watts and Gladwell. I tend to believe Duncan Watts because he’s a super badass and has numbers to back up his theories.

I dunno if I’ll read any additional Gladwell books at this point. I’ll probably try some other authors first and go back if I run out of other stuff to read.