I know I’m really slow at reviewing Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, since it’s been out for a couple of years now. I finally read it just in the last few weeks, after a colleagure recommended that I read it and Barry Schwarz‘s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less for a project I’m working on.
I’d read a few summaries of Blink, and somehow what stuck in my memory was the sound-bite that snap decisions are often the best ones. Wrong! The book shows that immediate reactions are worth listening to, if you’re an expert in that particular field. If you aren’t, your snap decision may be right, or it may be wrong. Malcolm Gladwell talks about times when your first, snap decisions are right (speed dating, but only if you don’t try to analyze what people like), and times when they’re wrong (the Pepsi taste test shows what you like when you get only a few sips, not what you like when you’re drinking an entire glass). He also goes into depth about people’s inbuilt or subconscious assumptions, and how they can influence a person into making mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences. A good example, one that’s been reported widely, is that orchestras only started hiring women in large numbers after introducing blind auditions, where the other orchestra members couldn’t be influenced by whether the player was male or female, white or black, tall or short (all potential bases for bias). All they heard was the music, and since they were experts in music, a short audition concentrating only on that was all they needed. More tragic consequences come when police or surgeons make snap decisions that may not be the right ones.
In summary, Blink is well worth reading, and most public libraries should have it on hand if you don’t want to buy it.
I read Paradox of Choice shortly afterwards and found it amusing how the same research is used in both books (and Stumbling on Happiness) to illustrate different points. Barry Schwarz’s main message is that if you are confronted with too many choices, you either spend a lot of time making the absolute best choice, and then will often still be unhappy since you’re not sure that you really made the best choice, or you settle for something that’s “good enough”. Which is often the better strategy, as most times it is good enough, and it frees up your time and mental bandwidth to concentrate on things that matter more to you. It’s absolutely true that in many places there is too much choice; I went into the local pet store the other day to pick up some more cat food. Every time I go in there seem to be more choices for dry cat food, all said to be good and healthy, with the consequence that I end up picking something off the shelf that looks reasonable because I have no way of deciding which is the best. And if the cats eat it, I buy that brand again next time as it’s as good a method as any for making a choice.
There is also a deeper point to the book – if your choices are unlimited, then if you fail, it’s your fault. So the burden of having to prove at all times that you are doing the absolute best, that you are as thin as you should be, or as rich, or as well-read, puts a lot of pressure on people. The author points out that the American “happiness quotient” has been going down over the last couple of decades; as people have had more choices they have become more unhappy, perhaps as a result of feeling like they made bad choices, or perhaps because of not meeting their own steadily increasing expectations. The counter-intuitive idea that if you have less, you might be happier, is not one that would make the consumerist beneficiaries happy, but is worth thinking about. In summary, The Paradox of Choice is worth reading, and it might even help make you happier with your life.