Intuition, Snap Judgments and Gut Reactions

When Gianfranco Becchina offered to sell an ancient statue to the Getty Museum for $10 million in 1983, the Getty conducted extensive (even microscopic) analysis before agreeing to buy. Afterward a few experts on viewing the statue had instantaneous misgivings, though they had a hard time articulating exactly why. Yet the gut reactions were right and the time-consuming analysis was wrong. The statue eventually proved to be a fake.

Gladwell is

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known for his story-telling skills, and his book Blink only confirms that. As a result, with this story firmly planted in our minds, we carry with us throughout the book the idea that we should rely on our intuition and hunches rather than detailed analysis. The problem is, that’s not the actual point Gladwell wants us to take away.

In fact, while Gladwell gives multiple examples of instant reactions that were right, he also gives many that were wrong, sometimes with deadly consequences. Even the blink-of-an-eye conclusions of experts can be mistaken in many different situations. But the subtitle (“The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”) and the compelling opening story lead us to think that the book is written merely to praise snap judgments rather than to partially bury them.

What does he actually want us to learn? One lesson is that we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. Experts make snap judgments but even they don’t know why, and they are sometimes quite prejudiced in those decisions. A second lesson is that the problem can be fixed.

Though

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Gladwell ends up with this helpful and balanced perspective, the book is a bit muddy in how it gets there.

The lesson for non-fiction authors: While opening with a strong, compelling story is always a good option, be sure the story is consistent with your main point (as well as your target audience).

Since I am in the middle of another book on this topic–Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman–the two books invite comparison. And I’ll be happy to do that . . . after I’ve had a chance to think about it.

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