Skip to main content

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell ****

Malcolm Gladwell hit the big time with his previous book The Tipping Point. Now he’s done it again (though perhaps not to the same extent) with Blink. The premise of the book is very simple. We often make decisions very quickly – in a second or two. In some cases these decisions are good. In others they’re bad. And sometimes experts, after years of study, can become good at the ones the rest of us are bad at. Probably they do this by unconsciously selecting a small but significant part of the data we are presented with in any situation. That’s it. That’s the whole book, as far as significant content goes.
So how come it scores so highly? Because Gladwell does it so well. What makes the book are the stories, illustrating the different points. There’s no great wisdom here, nothing really new, but Gladwell’s presentation is so good that it’s an enjoyable book to read that feels as if it’s giving you something even when it does much. The stories that are used to illustrate the points are fresh and interesting, and that’s what makes all the difference. Oh, that and the fact that (like Tipping Point) it bucks the trend for ridiculously fat books that work better as doorstops than good reading (but seem to impress those who give out prizes – they must be good, they’re LONG). This book you can read on a rainy afternoon, and feel all the better for it.
There are a couple of omissions that are a shame. Gladwell doesn’t make enough about the fact, well known from creativity studies, that the assumptions we make get in the way of good instant decision making. It’s there in some of his examples, but not really brought out very well. We can train ourselves to watch out for assumptions and defuse them (this means slowing down, getting away from the instant, blink moment), but most of us plunge in with the assumptions.
The other, even more total omission is any reference to the fact that there are some types of decision we just aren’t programmed to handle, and which all of us are very bad at doing quickly. Most typical is any decision involving probability. Our brains just can’t cope with probability very well (this is why casinos and bookkeepers are so rich). If you have any doubts about this, check out the Ferraris & Goats problem, a snap decision that pretty well everyone gets wrong until they’ve applied lots of thought – even mathematical experts.
These omissions don’t get in the way of the fact this is a fun little book, driven largely by scientific research into the way we make quick decisions. Delightful reading.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…