Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: Summary and Notes

blink malcolm gladwell “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
Rating: 7/10
Related: The Tipping Point, Outliers, The Effective Executive
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Blink Short Summary

Our brain is like a computer that processes all the knowledge instantly to give the first impression. “Thin-slicing” allows us to make decisions quickly that can as good as those made cautiously and deliberately. This technique can be learned through practice and controlled to the point when you know you can trust your instincts or not.

Blink Lessons

In Blink, Gladwell introduces the concept and power of “thin-slicing” with the story.

In the “Love Lab”, psychologist John Gottman can predict with 90% accuracy and in less than fifteen minutes whether a couple will still be together fifteen years later.

But how?

You can break a marriage down by looking at just one core element – the presence of contempt – to determine if it will be successful or not.

“He’s looking for patterns and cues. He has found that he can find out much of what he needs to know just by focusing on what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Contempt is closely related to disgust, and what disgust and contempt are about is completely rejecting and excluding someone from the community.”

While Gottman is an expert in relationships (he authored a few books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work“), almost anyone can guess how well two people like each other after watching a brief conversation.

Gladwell argues that all human beings are innately good at find patterns and reading situations.

The cognitive theory behind this kind of strange, but natural, impulse — called “thin-slicing” — is the main topic of Blink.

The Theory of Thin-Slicing

Humans can take a small amount of data – a “thin-slice” – and draw conclusions from it using a combination of experience and intuition.

“Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend – or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet – understands this implicitly; you can learn as much – or more – from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face.”

Thin-slicing allows us to make smart decisions based on little information with minimal deliberation.

Snap-second judgments are often more accurate than when we take the time to analyze a situation (paralysis by analysis).

The subconscious recognizes patterns and connections – what we call a “gut feeling” – long before our brain.

But we often don’t know how or why we know something:

“Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can’t look inside that room. Guided by experience a person can become expert.”

Speed-dating is a particularly good example of snap judgments in action because it’s very difficult to put into words why we want to date specific people and avoid others.

Untrained intuition leads to bad decisions based on prejudice, bias, and stereotypes.

If you’ve never been in a particular situation before, the brain can draw wrong parallels between similar experiences (also discussed in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”). As such, experience and expertise are preconditions to effective thin-slicing.

“In the blink of an eye, a single expert can usually tell you more than a mountain of survey data.”

The Concept of Priming

Priming is when we alter our behavior in measurable ways due to certain stimuli, such as images, words, and culture.

Which brings up the question: are humans defined by their beliefs or their actions?

“The real me isn’t the person I describe, no the real me is the me revealed by my actions.”

We are being subconsciously “primed” in different ways every day.

Remembering students about their genders or ethnicity, for example, bring in their mind the associated stereotypes and they score better or worse depending on that stereotype.

Priming your actions with words has an incredibly strong effect. Even thinking about being a professor makes you smarter at Trivial Pursuit.

If our brain believes our environment favors this or that type of personality, then we start behaving more like our environment.

Free will is an elusion, outside influences are extremely potent. Take control of your priming.

More Isn’t Always Better

Western culture values decisions that are complex and time-consuming. But sometimes less is more.

“Often a sign of expertise is noticing what doesn’t happen.”

For example:

Doctors used all the information they could gather to assess if a patient was going to have a heart attack.

It was a long process and clouded their brains instead of helping them. A new algorithm focused on three data points only. It was not only faster for the decision-making process, but also more accurate.

Extra information can distract and confound the decision-makers.

Gladwell describes the process of “verbal overshadowing”: trying to explain and rationalize decisions prevents us from making good intuitive decisions.

“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”

In another example, Van Riper succeeded as a commander because he didn’t overburden his troops and commanders with excessive information: he used intuition and rapid cognition to fight the blue team.

“Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.”


The key question Blink tries to answer is: “When should we trust our instincts, and when should we consciously think things through?”

Although snap judgments are often more accurate than our thought-out ones, they can also be a result of a subconscious racial, socioeconomic, or appearance-based bias.

As important as it is to trust our intuition, it’s also important to question it.

“I think that the task of figuring out how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is one of the great challenges of our time.”

Reading Blink will help you become a more critical thinker and understand the process of decision-making.