The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Essay

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking suggests that there is great power in the intuitive leaps or insights the human mind is capable of generating, that the “smallest components of our everyday lives—the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress” are often what matters more than logic (Gladwell, 2005, p.16). Even something as simple as an ordinary conversation can yield insights about something as complex as a marriage. Gladwell uses examples from history to show how insight into small details can have significant gains, such as the fact that World War II British code-breakers, even when they did not understand the code itself, could often find valuable interpretive clues simply by the cadence of a German’s speech.


Insight and leaps of understanding are not something that only a few, privileged individuals are capable of. Gladwell also notes that even untrained observers are able to understand a great deal about complete strangers, simply by looking at the strangers’ most intimate possessions, as was the case in a research study of people asked to draw conclusions about students based upon objects in their dorm rooms. “The observers were looking at the students’ most personal belongings, and our personal belongings contain a wealth of very telling information” (Gladwell, 2005, p.37). Of course, there are many people who are unable to draw such profound conclusions so quickly. Gladwell uses disparate examples such as the election of Warren Harding (the dangers of “tall, dark, handsome men” who look presidential but who really are not) and Coke’s failure to generate a new product (“New Coke”) that satisfied consumers because of its inability to understand the mystique behind the so-called secret formula of its flagship product.


The difference between good decision-makers and bad ones is the fact that good decision-makers are able to fillet out the most relevant and salient information, such as their presumption that tall men are superior or that people solely purchase soft drinks based upon taste. For example, it was just as vitally important what the individuals going through students’ dorm room belongings did not have as what they did—a dorm room has a relatively focused array of clothing, books, photographs, and other items that are uniquely revelatory of the person’s character, without the distractions of social stereotypes. There is less of a likelihood of assuming that someone who is a football player is a dumb jock because of the presence of academic textbooks on his bookshelf. Bad decisions are the result of being overwhelmed by information in many instances, or of fixating on only one or two pieces of information at the exclusion of others.


Gladwell himself uses the term “thin slicing” to describe the ability to understand things intuitively. Thin slicing is literally slicing into a mass of confusing data and rendering into easily assimilated, useful parts and cutting away the fat, much like a butcher might render a piece of meat. In fact, there are many terms within different disciplines to refer to such thin slicing, says Gladwell, such as “court sense” in basketball, “coup d’oeil” in military combat, and even “giss” in birdwatching (Gladwell, 2005, p.49). Yet this is also what is problematic about Gladwell’s thesis, namely that he himself draws very broad connections between anecdotes that may or may not have a common connection. Is court sense, or knowing a basketball game, really the same thing as, for example, a doctor establishing a positive emotional connection which could potentially avoid a malpractice suit for a patient?

Another problem with Gladwell’s book is that because thin slicing seems like such a mysterious “gut” instinct, one which is so diffusely defined, it is very difficult for a prospective reader to take the lessons of the book and to apply them to his or her life. In today’s information-saturated age, it is indeed important to remember that more information does not always result in better-quality decisions. But simply going with an emotional response to an event can also lead to bad decisions, as seen in both the election of Warren Harding or snap, stereotyped judgements (like the assumption someone is a “dumb jock” because he plays football).


While Gladwell makes a persuasive case about the risks of focusing too much on factual information, such as the fixation upon taste versus brand appeal at Coke or some physicians’ assumption that they merely need to present data, not to connection an emotional level with patients, he does not really provide guidance about how to use one’s gut in an intelligently reliable fashion. One of the most frustrating aspects about something like “court sense” or intuition is that it can be so difficult to define. The reasons why some people seem to be able to pick out the right sort of information (factual and emotional) versus the wrong kinds is still unclear at the end of Blink.

Gladwell, M (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Company.

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