In 1983, the J. Paul Getty Museum in California acquired a statue on loan. The art dealer who sold the statue claimed that it was an ancient Greek kouros—a very rare kind of ancient marble statue. The statue was in near-perfect condition—so perfect that the Getty officials suspected that it was a fake. However, the art dealer produced legal documentation, showing that the statue had been bought legitimately, rather than stolen. Furthermore, art historians determined that the statue was covered in a layer of calcite, which must have taken thousands of years to form—therefore, it seemed likely that the statue was real. The Getty officially bought the statue for ten million dollars in the fall of 1986.
Gladwell begins the book with an intriguing anecdote about the history of the Getty’s prized Greek statue—a symbol of how much information people can learn about the world in only a few seconds. The Getty Museum acquired the statue because it seemed to be a legitimate piece of ancient Greek art, with all the documentation to prove it—put another way, the “rational evidence” for the statue’s value seemed incontrovertible.
There was a problem with the Getty statue—it just “didn’t look right.” One art historian who saw the statue for the first time decided that the statue was a fake almost immediately. Another expert looked at the statue for a couple seconds and then told the Getty board of trustees not to buy it—she had an “instinctive sense” that something wasn’t right. A few years later, it turned out that the art dealer who’d sold the statue to the Getty was a liar—the documents he’d produced to verify the statue’s legitimacy were proved to be forgeries. Furthermore, the statue turned out to be a strange pastiche of half a dozen other Greek statues. Finally, experts discovered that it is possible to create a layer of calcite around a statue in a few years, rather than many centuries. In short, it took years for experts to decide that the statue was a fake—the same information that other art historians had gotten in just a few seconds. Blink, Gladwell informs us, is about what goes on in the human mind in those few seconds.
Gladwell contrasts the strong “rational evidence” for the statue’s value with art historians’ instinctive hunches that the statue was “wrong” in some fundamental way. In the end, hunches turned out to be more insightful and perceptive than months of formal research. As Gladwell interprets it, the history of the Getty’s kouros suggests that sometimes, intuition can be more powerful than rationality. With this striking illustration of the power of intuition, Gladwell begins his book.
There was a psychological study that involved playing a complicated card game. Participants were asked to bet money on the number and suit of red and blue cards, but they weren’t told what the penalties for failed bets would be; they had to figure it out on their own. Slowly, the participants learned that the best strategy was to bet on blue cards, rather than red ones, because blue cards offered the most reliable payouts. On average, it took the participants about eighty bets to figure out the optimal strategy. But the most interesting part of this study is that the participants “knew” the optimal strategy long before they were consciously aware of it. The study measured participants’ sweating and heart rates, and determined that participants intuitively gravitated toward blue cards within just a few rounds of betting.
Gladwell’s second example of the power of intuition is more systematic and scientific than the first—this time, a formal experiment measures the extent to which people’s instincts guide their behavior. Once again, the example suggests that intuition has some notable advantages over rationality. Instinctive is quick and decisive—instead of wasting lots of time weighing the evidence, people use their instincts to decide what to do. Notice, also, that instinct is as much a physical phenomenon as it is a mental one—people’s bodies (their heart rates and perspiration) seem to be telling them what to do.
To sum up what we’ve learned so far, Gladwell says, there are two ways of thinking: consciously and unconsciously. In the card experiment, participants took about eighty turns-worth of weighing the evidence before they consciously decided on a strategy. But the participants also used the second form of thinking: instead of weighing all the evidence carefully, they made a snap judgment based on a small portion of the evidence.
In short, Gladwell distinguishes between the rational, conscious mind, which is characterized by logic, methodical thought, and evidence-weighing, and the unconscious mind, which is characterized by instinct, snap judgments, and impulsivity.
Gladwell calls the part of the mind that leaps to sudden conclusions the “adaptive unconscious.” The adaptive unconscious is different from the unconscious mind famously described by the psychologist Sigmund Freud. One major difference between the Freudian unconscious and the adaptive unconscious is that the adaptive unconscious is constantly assessing the external world and responding to available evidence. Some psychologists think that the human species would have died out long ago if it hadn’t been for the adaptive unconscious—in times of crisis, humans depend on the adaptive unconscious to decide what to do. One important application of the adaptive unconscious is assessing personality. Often, people decide whether to trust others within just a few seconds of meeting them—a potentially life-or-death decision.
The adaptive unconscious will be one of the key concepts of the book. In times of intense pressure or danger, human beings fall back on their adaptive unconscious in order to decide what to do—in other words, when there isn’t enough time to weigh the evidence methodically, humans must stop thinking logically and start acting instinctively. Without instinct and intuition, furthermore, it’s likely that the human race would have died out a long time ago—otherwise, humans would never have had the speed and cunning to survive danger in the wild.
There are some obvious problems with the adaptive unconscious. We’re often told to ignore snap judgments—hence the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Snap judgments aren’t necessarily right. Indeed, the Getty art historians who initially determined the legitimacy of the Getty statue may have been guilty of making snap judgments of their own—as Getty employees, they immediately wanted the statue to be real, and then used their extensive training to legitimize a conclusion they’d already reached. Thus, Gladwell says, he’ll need to study cases of the adaptive unconscious being wrong, not just examples of when it’s right.
On the surface, Gladwell’s thesis runs contrary to almost everything people are usually taught. While people aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, Gladwell argues that being able to judge a book by its cover is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. However, the passage also contains an important caveat—there’s no rule that says that snap judgments are inherently right; indeed, the book will explore many examples of how snap judgments can go horribly wrong.
Blink is a book about a big, complicated idea, but it will try to explore this big idea by looking at specific case studies. There are some obvious advantages to such an approach, Gladwell informs us: by focusing on the particular, we can get a precise, real-world sense of how humans behave. In all, Blink will try to show that “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
In a sense, the form of Blink mirrors its content: instead of a systematic examination of all the scientific evidence, the book provides a quick, insightful look at a small handful of the evidence, and then extrapolates some big conclusions. (In effect, Gladwell’s book is an exercise in “thin slicing.”)