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Benoit Jones


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Review of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Blink is a remarkable book; one that will open your eyes to the hidden workings of the subconscious. This book should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. The influence of the subconscious mind on our everyday decisions from snap judgements in the professional arena to which brand of tomato sauce we buy and who we fall in love with is far greater than many of us realise. Malcolm Gladwell, by talking to the world’s leading experts, has distilled from their knowledge a ripping page-turner that will have you boring your friends for weeks with its startling revelations.

Gladwell begins with the story of an ancient Greek statue bought by the Getty museum in California. Several leading experts knew instinctively that it was a fake as soon as they were shown the sculpture – they saw more in a blink of an eye than the Getty’s own experts could in 14 months of testing and research. This book is about those first moments.

Gladwell moves swiftly on, from example to experiment to case study in a journalistic style reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. He is interested in how the subconscious works because sometimes our instincts betray us. Since the subconscious is like a huge databank of experience and has a remarkable talent for making connections, it can sometimes, without us realising, make connections that are wrong. This is why it is a struggle to truly ‘not judge a book by its cover’ and why sometimes at night we see a shape moving between the trees when there is none. Despite occasional failures, the subconscious is for the most part incredibly good at what it does; we would not be able to function effectively in our daily lives without it. Blink not only describes the power of rapid cognition but attempts to understand why it can go awry so that we can know when we should listen to it and when we should be wary of what it tells us.

Gladwell talks not just to psychologists, but also to successful advertising executives, car salesmen, food tasters, designers, doctors and army generals who have in various ways shaped and educated their snap judgements. Blink shows us how we can hone our instincts and use rapid cognition to our advantage in situations where there is no time for conscious reasoning. These situations happen to us all every day of our lives, every time we meet somebody for the first time, every time we react to something that startles us, every time we make a decision based on taste or judgement. The psychologist John Gottman can predict with 95% accuracy whether a couple will still be together in 15 years’ time from an hour-long videotape of them talking about their relationship, mostly by quantifying the amount of contempt. It seems contempt is a real deal-breaker. The likelihood that a doctor will be sued for malpractice has nothing to do with their competence, training or the information they give the patient. But there is a correlation with how they talk to the patient. Using 40 seconds of a doctor-patient conversation and removing the high-frequency sounds so that individual words cannot be recognised, the psychologist Nalini Ambady could tell whether a doctor was likely to get sued just from the tone of voice. So malpractice is really a matter of respect, people simply do not sue doctors they like. This obviously has implications for contractual disputes in civil engineering.

The connections the subconscious makes can result in unwanted implicit associations. Although most people would say they are not racist or sexist, for example, most people also make immediate, automatic associations based on the cultural messages that surround them every day and this leads us to treat people differently without even intending to. As Gladwell says, “Our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values”.

Another phenomenon that leads to inequality is that of ‘priming’. What enters the subconscious before an activity can affect its outcome. For instance, reading a list of words containing “worried,” “Florida,” “old,” lonely,” “grey,” “bingo,” and “wrinkle” will make people leave the room much more slowly because their unconscious mind has registered these words amongst the others while their conscious mind has not, and it has begun to think about the state of being old. In a similar vein, when black college students were asked to identify their race on a questionnaire before taking a test, the number of items they got right was cut in half. They had been primed with all the negative stereotypes in their subconscious of African Americans and academic achievement, whereas white students from private schools are constantly primed in the opposite way.

Anyone who reads this book will be compelled to rethink how they go about things: how job interviews are conducted, how to avoid litigation by changing the tone of your voice, how to prime yourself to perform better and how to avoid priming others to underachieve. This book changed the way I saw the world as much as The Selfish Gene or Ways of Seeing and although Gladwell does not have the critical scientific mind and fierce clarity of Richard Dawkins or the brave, beautiful prose of John Berger, his chatty, buoyant style will endear him to many.


Malcolm Gladwell – Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Penguin Books, 2005, ISBN 0-141-01459-8.


Other books mentioned:

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything. Transworld Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-552-99704-8.

Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-19-286092-5.

John Berger – Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin Books, 1972, ISBN 0-14-013515-4.



Contribution to discussion on Engineering & Theology


I think engineering students these days are spoonfed information to quite a large extent, but my understanding is that this functional approach is because they have to learn so much in so little time. There is a danger that students will think that there is only one absolute "truth", when in fact all science changes constantly with new advances, sometimes with competing theories coexisting for a time. Also, in engineering we often use theories we know to be wrong (for example, modelling soil as an elastic material - in some cases this will yield an accurate enough answer, in some cases not). Students do have the opportunity to learn these pitfalls when they do research projects in their final or penultimate year, or if they specialise in a certain field and read primary sources of information (i.e. research papers rather than textbooks). Unless engineering degrees are extended to 5 years, or the pace of learning is substantially increased (for which particularly gifted students are required) the current methods of mainly teaching knowledge by itself will be difficult to change.

The main problem is that each year the curriculum is expanded - many subjects that would not have existed 20 years ago, such as project management, health, safety and welfare, sustainability and the environment are now insisted upon. This is a good thing, but in general it means there is less time for the theoretical subjects such as structures, hydraulics, geotechnics etc. As the time is squeezed, the amount of spoonfeeding of these subjects increases.

The big difference between science and theology, by the way, is that science may be demonstrated by experiment. If there are competing theories, only one will be eventually proven. Steve's post does imply that in theology there is only one "truth" that each student must find for themselves by nurturing their individual soul. So for each person, this truth is different? This is a very spiritual view, and not one shared by the mainstream dogmatic religions that generally maintain that there is only one truth, even today. In the 17th century you may have been burned as a heretic for saying this. The importance of the individual is essentially a secular humanist world view, not a religious one. It is worth remembering that all the advances in science and the principles of equality central to modern western democracy came from rationalism and secular humanism, not religion or a belief in God.

If science did not have this unique character (that it reduces to only one truth), it would not be able to advance as fast as it does. When a scientist believes something to be true, it is because the balance of evidence indicates that it is. Therefore, there is something that can be described as the current accepted paradigm at any given time. In theology this cannot be, since there is no proof except personal revelation, and this is clearly subjective given the variations in form that this takes.

However, students must be aware that this currently accepted paradigm described in their undergraduate textbooks will change as new evidence comes to light. Similarly they should be aware that it is important that they question the basis of the opinions of others and make their own judgements. I would suggest that the teaching of scientific method as a separate subject would cover this, demonstrating to students that science is advanced by a rational approach, giving different value to different sources of information. In the US for example, all science and engineering students are taught scientific method as a matter of course - why not here?

Thanks for listening,