Sunday, January 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Author says best decisions are often quick

Special to The Seattle Times

Coming up

Malcolm Gladwell

The author of "Blink" will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, as part of its Science Lecture series. Tickets are $5 at the door — for more information call the University Book Store (206-634-3400;

"Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking"
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 288 pp., $25.95

Everyone makes snap judgments. We sense hostility or friendship, flirt or reject, pass by this restaurant but try that one, and for some reason choose one packaged product over identical food in a different package.

Homilies such as "Don't judge a book by its cover" or "Beauty is only skin deep" or "Look before you leap" suggest we should gather more information before passing judgment.

But in "Blink," author Malcolm Gladwell contends that intuitive thinking or "thin slicing" often leads to better decisions. He says the belief that more data means right choices is often wrong.

The result is an entertaining psychology book by the author of "The Tipping Point," which coined the term for how small, incremental changes can suddenly add up to "tip" events in a new direction. Both books have lessons that seem obvious — but only after the author has pointed them out.

Gladwell, an African American who writes for New Yorker magazine, got interested in "Blink" when police stopped him as a potential rape suspect even though he was too old, too short and too thin to fit the description. All he had in common with the suspect was dark skin and long curly hair. It got him interested in how we think.

The answer is both too much, and too little.

Gladwell cites a Persian Gulf war game in which the side with less satellite technology and fewer avenues of information was actually winning by fighting more creatively, intuitively and quickly. Defense planners had to change the rules to favor the Pentagon's more ponderous, data-rich style of decision making.

He also recounts a Chicago emergency ward in which a doctor discovered that reducing the questions asked of potential heart-attack victims actually improved diagnosis: Too much information was confusing physicians trying to sort out who was having a real attack and who simply had chest pains.

Other examples include a fire chief who instinctively gets his men out of a building moments before a floor collapses; an employer who decides in seconds whether or not to hire a job candidate; a marriage analyst who uses a 15-minute video to correctly predict if a couple will stay married; and an art-forgery expert who senses fraud at a glance. In each case, their unconscious minds picked up subtle physical signals that helped them make surprisingly astute judgments.

However, the problem with "the power of thinking without thinking" is that it has as many dangers as benefits.

Gladwell cites examples of police shootings and beatings where slowing down, even by seconds, could have prevented tragedy. New training emphasizes ways to confront suspects more slowly and at greater distance, giving more time to make life-and-death decisions.

Similarly, a top car salesman told Gladwell that his initial instincts about potential customers were useless. The scruffy, the young, or the seemingly indifferent often ended up having more money, and the willingness to spend it, than showroom visitors who at first glance seemed to be eager high spenders.

And while "speed dating" that lets men and women screen each other in five-minute conversations has merit, it's also true that a classic love story is the couple that clashes early but smooches by the last reel.

Accordingly, "Blink" is not a glib handbook of how to think, or a guide of what to think. But it will make you think about how you think, when you think in a blink.

William Dietrich, a staff writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine, is the author of "Hadrian's Wall."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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