In the mid-1980s, Los Angeles's Getty Museum was on the cusp of acquiring an ancient Greek statue. Using stereo microscopes, scientists determined it was indeed the real deal. And without anything more than a cold stare, art experts the world over determined it was a fraud. The controversy over its authenticity, muddied by inconsistencies in documentation, has raged for years. How can a bunch of art-history wonks instantly see something so contrary to science? How could they be right when the evidence says otherwise? Answering such questions is at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
As a staff writer for some obscure provincial 'zine called The New Yorker, Gladwell explores counterintuitive phenomena in business, art, and science. "Counterintuitive stories are of interest to people and to journalists in particular," Gladwell says in a telephone interview. "So many things in life seem simple, but once you dig a little it becomes a lot more complex. That's my favorite thing in journalism, when suddenly the blacks and whites become grays."
Gladwell's book The Tipping Point showed how the tiniest environmental factors can explain seismic shifts in everything from crime rates to fashion trends. In Blink, he sweats the small stuff again, this time discussing the impact of our instantaneous, unconscious thoughts. Gladwell also notes that for all its efficacy, rapid cognition can go awry. That's because our adaptive unconscious tends to reject everything that's not rooted in our experience. "This is a book about taking snap judgments seriously," Gladwell warns. "It's not about how great snap decisions are. It's about how they can be wildly wrong and right and knowing what the difference is." Who knew "thinking without thinking" would require so much thought?