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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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