Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. New York, New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. 296 pages.
Blink is a journey with Malcolm Gladwell into the human unconsciousness. In the introduction to Blink, Gladwell shares with us the three goals for this journey: 1) to show that decisions made very quickly can be just as good as cautious decisions; 2) to demonstrate when to let quick decisions guide us and when cautious decisions are more prudent; and 3) to learn how to educate and control decisions made in the “blink” of an eye. It is Gladwell’s contention that by understanding our unconsciousness and even controlling it, the world will become a much better place. He writes, “But what would happen if we took our instincts seriously? What if we stopped scanning the horizon with our binoculars and began instead examining our own decision making and behavior through the most powerful of microscopes? I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and on and on. And if we were to combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world” (16-17). We might call this Gladwell’s gospel.
Gladwell’s journey through the human unconsciousness is marked by chapter headings that act like mile markers along the interstate. Gladwell skillfully uses a single anecdote for each chapter to aid understanding. In the introduction, a statue called the kouros is judged as a fake by art experts in the blink of an eye to show the power of the unconsciousness. In chapter one, a scientist analyzes a brief conversation between a husband and wife about their dog. In minutes, he understands the true state of their marriage through the power of “thin-slicing” or blink judgment. In chapter two, a tennis pro can predict with almost 100% accuracy a double fault during any tennis match, but he has no idea how he does it. Our conscious mind is locked out of our unconscious mind. In chapter three, Warren Harding, one of the worst American Presidents, becomes president simply because he is good-looking and tall. Not understanding that the unconscious mind affects decision-making can make a country end up with a very bad president. In chapter four, Paul Riper’s great victory in a mock military battle using only his gut instinct is proof positive that blink decisions in war are far better than decisions based on the overwhelming amount of information. Overwhelming amounts of information will paralyze good decision-making. In chapter five, Kenna’s big failure in getting a record deal teaches the reader that surveys only ask questions of the conscious mind and fail to uncover the decision-making powers of the unconscious mind. In chapter six, the terrible tragedy of a police shooting in the Bronx shows that blink thinking abilities are seriously impaired under stress. These anecdotes along with scientific studies and anecdotes from all walks of life are the views along the wonderful journey through the human unconsciousness.
Although the journey with Gladwell is always interesting and his writing spectacular, Gladwell’s gospel of Blink thinking is simply not the answer to the ills in our society or the way to make a “better world” (17). According to Gladwell, fixing an ugly shooting in the Bronx may be as simple as training police officers to harness the power of blink thinking. What about the fact that racism is rooted deeply in the human heart? What about the fact that humans are by nature violent and murderous? Will understanding the human unconsciousness fix the problems of a thoroughly corrupted human nature? Gladwell thinks so. Scripture doesn’t. Scripture teaches that since the Fall into sin, humans have lost the image of God. No amount of training in our unconsciousness can restore that image. Only the perfect life of the Second Adam can restore to humans what the First Adam lost.
Gladwell doesn’t even meet the more modest goal of teaching how to harness the unconscious mind for decision-making. Even Gladwell admits in the afterward to Blink, “The truth is that this is not a question that I – or anyone else, for that matter – can answer definitively. It’s just too complicated” (267). In other words, we simply do not know enough about the human unconsciousness to make hard and fast rules regarding decision-making. Should we trust our instincts? Should we reason things out? We just don’t know. In other words, reading Blink will not help you understand how to choose a wife, deliberate a call, or choose a career with any kind of certainty. The human mind is just too complicated.
Even so, Gladwell’s writing and insight into the human mind does give us great reason to rejoice in the creative genius of God, which makes the book eminently practical to the Christian. The best way to read this book is to read it and simply marvel at God’s handiwork just like you would marvel at a view of the Rocky Mountains. The human mind really is beautiful and complicated. While reading Blink, this reviewer could only marvel and rejoice in the greatness of God and cry out with the psalmist, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… (139:14a).” The greatest disappointment with Blink is that Gladwell never does draw the conclusion or even mention a natural knowledge of God. Instead, to the great disappointment of this reviewer, Gladwell credits the creative work of God to evolution. He notes on one occasion, even though it does not further his argument, that “…our involuntary expressive system is in many ways even more important: it is the way we have been equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings” (210).
Finally, we will also read Blink profitably as a case study for how to make a weighty topic—and one that might sound boring at first—incredibly interesting. Gladwell has the talent of making scientific case studies, psychological experiments, statistics, and material ignored by the general public into something that keeps you reading late at night. Can we pastors learn this skill from Gladwell? When we preach and teach theology—something that the average person doesn’t understand and might yawn at—can we learn to present it in an interesting way?
Blink may not leap to the top of a busy pastor’s reading list, but you just may want to bring it along on vacation or bring it out on your next road trip. You will not be disappointed as you marvel at what God has made.