Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)
reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Tuesday January 25, 7:30 pm

A good nonfiction book carries new wisdom that stays with you long after you've finished reading. It comes in many forms: a cooking skill; a conversation topic; a new way of looking at people; a new way of thinking about yourself.

What Malcolm Gladwell's Blink can teach you, in a nutshell: simple snap decisions aren't so simple after all. The introduction tells the story of an art dealer who sold a Greek sculpture to the Getty Museum. The museum only decided to buy it after meticulous scientific testing verified its authenticity. Meanwhile, the museum ignored intuitive hunches by many less scientific art historians and curators who insisted that, at first glance, the sculpture "just didn't look right." Well, it actually turned out to be a fake. They could barely provide any tangible evidence for its fraudulence, but they were right. How? Enter the first theory of Blink: "thin slicing." What we might dismissively explain as "intuition" stems from a more complex mechanism that involves making unconscious decisions based on our past experiences.

We're not sure why we make these decisions; in fact, we often mistrust the warning signals of rapid cognition until we form conscious observations to justify them. And sometimes, we should. In its final chapter, Blink insightfully relates the mistaken shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, a crucial moment in which the rapid cognition of a team of policemen utterly failed, causing them to see a terrified black man as an armed enemy. And murder him.

Blink boasts an array of evidence from many disparate fields, and Gladwell excels at connecting these practical examples to his theories with lucidity and a hypnotic voice. A University of Washington professor predicts with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will be together 15 years from now based solely on a 15-minute videotaped conversation. Kenna's music stuns everybody in the music industry but is impossible to market to radio listeners. And so on.

The lessons here require a little work on your part, but the ideas are worth the effort. They can change the way you look at human behavior.