Bollocks: a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink’

I started writing this review a couple of weeks ago, at which point I was roughly halfway through chapter one. I didn’t publish because I thought I was perhaps being a bit too harsh. After dipping back into Blink however, I and now am certain that this is one of the weakest, shallowest, unrelentingly stupid non-fiction books I’ve ever read. So please, read this review and (just to be sure you appreciate how vigorously I hate reading this) mentally upscale all negative comments by a factor of 100.

For Blink to make a convincing argument, Malcolm Gladwell requires of the reader two things: a) they don’t use their brain, and b) they accept that the point he’s making is wrong.

Shop fronts of Snappy Snaps and JessopsI’m not the first person to take a poke at Gladwell’s personal brand of pop psychological bullpap (Adam and Joe did a particularly entertaining bit about it on their radio show a few years ago), but Blink is the first of his books I’ve delved into. Equipped with a tiresome palette of loaded anecdotes and sciency-sounding studies, Gladwell attempts to paint a world in which instinct offers greater insight than contemplation. He calls this ‘thin-slicing’.

And by ‘thin-slicing,’ Gladwell contends, deploying trendy-sounding jargon to better qualify his point, we can quickly and effortlessly identify fraudulent pieces of art, doomed marriages and the best candidates for a job. The appeal to the ignorant is obvious: why strain yourself with deep thought when it’s easier to just run with whatever random crap is floating around your brain at the time? Under the slightest weight of scrutiny, however, the premise collapses quicker than the cheerleading team of the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Society forming a pyramid.

Early in the book, Gladwell presents a scenario. Imagine, he says, that you’re asked to judge a person’s suitability for a job based on your impression of their personality. To do this, you have two options. Option one, you meet with the candidate three times a week over the course of a year, eventually becoming their best friend. Option two, you spend fifteen minutes nosing around their bedroom. Which one offers a better judge of character?

For Gladwell to elicit the slightest flutter of interest from the reader, he relies on them assuming option one to be the better of the two. For Gladwell to get the kind of fuck-me-my-mind-is-blown reaction he seems to be aiming for, the reader needs to be so wedded to the idea that option one is the way to go, they need several patronising pages of poorly conceived psychological study to show them the light.

The study, unsurprisingly, purports to show that option two is the better choice: strangers who spend a short time poking around someone’s bedroom are a better judge of certain aspects of that person’s character than the subject’s closest friends. Gladwell makes it clear that we’re supposed to find this both unbelievable and face-palmingly obvious:

“If you are like most people, I imagine that you find [the study’s] conclusions quite incredible. But the truth is they shouldn’t be…”

But there’s simply nothing incredible going on here. As Gladwell’s own description of the study explains (between over-excited embellishments), the personality traits ‘thin-slicers’ judged more accurately than friends were centred around how organised, stable, and independently minded they were (or were not). Meanwhile, the friends were significantly more accurate at judging how extraverted and agreeable the person is (or isn’t). In other words, looking at a bedroom (one of the most personal, intimate areas of someone’s life) affords you exactly the kind of non-insightful insight you’d expect from such a perspective, while offering no clue whatsoever as to a person’s wider behaviour. Likewise, friends accurately know how a person acts in public, but not so much about what they keep out of sight. This says nothing about the strength of ‘spontaneous decisions’ and more about the benefit of perspective.

But there’s a deeper flaw here. Gladwell presents two options and says himself that most people, using their gut reaction, choose the first – i.e., the ‘wrong’ choice. To get to the ‘right’ choice requires a level of critical thinking and/or a fairly extensive psychological study – which is about as non-spontaneous as you can get. If my blink response can’t steer me in the right direction with such an inane (and supposedly unsurprising) example, what use is it on matters of real importance?

Even if we try to ignore the wider argument of the book and focus on the component psychological ‘revelations’, we end up frustrated. I’m convinced that Gladwell actively goes out of his way in his efforts to avoid saying anything of real insight. At the close of chapter one, he talks about how humans are natural thin-slicers and, illustrating this alongside some excruciatingly inane anecdotes, points to an example in which non-experts took part in a divorce prediction test (that he found, apparently, “overwhelming”) after being given a list of emotions to look for when watching videos of couples. The observers predicted which couples would divorce with “better than 80 percent accuracy”. To Gladwell, this was just another anecdote to throw in to show how effective the blink effect is, alongside a birdwatcher accurately (according to the birdwatcher) identifying a bird from a fleeting glance two-hundred feet away and a Hollywood producer telling the story about why he cast Tom Hanks in the movie Splash. But what’s interesting to me is how these people knew to look for the emotions in that list, or the distinguishing features of bird species, or the characteristics of a leading man that resonate with movie-goers. Of course, the ‘trick’ is knowing what to look for – crack that and we can streamline the old mental process, cutting out the crappy thought-streams and focus on what matters. Surely that’s what’s at the heart of this?

Apparently not. Gladwell dismisses this at the beginning of chapter two, further tailoring the bullshit for the gleefully clueless by arguing that even if you can’t explain why you feel something, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or full of shit. This is just how thin-slicing works! We shouldn’t even try to understand what’s jerking that knee.

“If we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments.”

Appropriately, Gladwell rejects an in-depth analysis and instead prefers to recall the most whimsical, least helpful personal account of anything I’ve ever read: “[when attempting to determine whether a piece of art was a fraud or not, the fakebuster said it was as if] his eyes and senses were a flock of hummingbirds popping in and out of dozens of way stations.” What the fuck am I supposed to do with that information?

Depressingly, I’m only about a fifth of the way through the book (I thought I’d get into the swing of things by making a snap judgment). There’s a chance it’ll all begin to make sense, or maybe Gladwell will qualify his central point into extinction (“It only works with certain aspects of some topics on which you’ve already acquired extensive knowledge and experience”). He may even be saving his best material for later, biding his time before dropping some ‘facts’ that will truly rock my world (if it does get better, leave a comment letting me know – I’m as yet undecided whether or not to finish it).

I just can’t see that happening, however. It’s not premise that is infuriatingly shallow. Gladwell explores his subject with the subtlety and authority of that twatty kid from primary school who totally is an expert in some cool martial art – “did you know I could kill a man with one finger? Like this… well, yeah, but if I used my full strength your head would explode.”

Gladwell paints another scenario: he’s a professor; you walk down a long corridor to his office, sit down on a table and proceed to do a simple word test (helpfully included in the book). Once you’ve completed the test, he writes:

“That seemed straightforward, right? Actually it wasn’t. After you finished that test – believe it or not – you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in.”

Maybe I’m missing a ‘wonderment gland’ or something, because I am not amazed at the idea of how Gladwell asserts I would’ve behaved had I really completed that test in his office.

The study referenced is quite interesting by itself – the word test was littered with terms that subconsciously trigger feelings of old age in your mind; if you’re a bit of a Derren Brown fan (as I am), you’d be familiar with the idea. But Gladwell ‘reveals’ the finding in such a breathlessly childish way, I found myself immediately sceptical, wondering whether the corridor had a slight-but-significant gradient leading away from the office. I know books like this are supposed to challenge one’s lazily-accepted beliefs, but this is surely the opposite effect to what was intended. He’s got me doubting things I had hitherto accepted!

This perfectly sums up how utterly worthless the book is: I was a believer in Blink before I started reading it.