Blink. Think. Blank. Bunk.

Education Next Issue Cover

Solid snap judgments are deeply grounded

By Diane Ravitch

3 Comments | Print | PDF |

Spring 2007 / Vol. 7, No. 2

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown, 2005, $25.95; 288 pages.

Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye
By Michael R. LeGault

Threshold Editions, 2006, $24.95; 386 pages.

Blank: The Power of Not Actually Thinking at All
By Noah Tall

Harper, 2006, $11.95; 96 pages.

As reviewed by Diane Ravitch

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard or read a paean to the importance of critical thinking skills. (Just for fun, I Googled the phrase and came up with over one million hits.) Often, the pedagogues who champion critical thinking skills insist that such skills are of far greater value to children than “mere knowledge,” “mere facts,” or what they derisively refer to as “content.” In other words, if students learn how to think, then it matters not at all if they never read great literature or study history.

Now along comes celebrated author Malcolm Gladwell to tell us in his best-selling Blink that intuition is far superior to the critical thinking skills that so many educators prize. Reflection and deep thought are out, it seems, and judgments made on the fly are in.

Not only was Blink a huge, long-running bestseller, but it boosted Mr. Gladwell into the ranks of megastars on the lecture circuit, where he is now paid $40,000 or so to dispense his theories to corporate executives. Gladwell’s ideas refute the schools’ labored efforts to teach critical thinking, which usually refers to gathering facts, reflecting on their meaning, and analyzing available evidence to reach a judgment. Instead, Gladwell celebrates instinct, first impressions, decisions made “at a glance,” the power of the unconscious. If the schools were to take his advice to heart, they would soon be teaching neither knowledge nor critical thinking skills, and we could treat them as daycare centers rather than academic institutions.

Gladwell is surely a talented writer, as one would expect of a regular contributor to the New Yorker. He skillfully relates a series of tales intended to show the power of snap judgments. His first example involves a decision by the Getty Museum to buy a remarkably intact Greek sculpture from the 6th century B.C. for nearly $10 million. Since this investment demanded a high degree of caution, the museum hired scientists to investigate the age of the piece. The scientists probed and analyzed and concluded that the sculpture was genuine.

When the museum invited several art experts to look at the statue, they immediately and correctly called it a fake, based on their instincts about what was real and what was not. But in this tale, as in most of the others that Gladwell cites, the person who makes the alleged snap judgment is someone who has spent years accumulating the knowledge to make a fast and accurate decision. It was not as if the Getty called in a dozen Joe Six-Packs from the street; no, it listened with anguish to people who had spent their professional lives learning to tell the difference between real and fake.

Gladwell’s argument simply doesn’t hold water. Blink decisions are only worthwhile when they are made by people with years of experience. Even then, as he readily acknowledges, blink decisions are often wrong. Sometimes they are simply prejudice. Other times, they are wrong because acting on instinct can lead to wrong judgments.

The notorious killing of African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 by four members of the New York City Police Department was a blink decision. The police saw Diallo late at night standing in front of an apartment building in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. They called to him and he didn’t answer. They shouted, and he reached into his pocket for his wallet. They made a snap decision that he was reaching for a gun; they drilled 41 shots into him. They were wrong, and he was dead.

Michael R. LeGault apparently had a book in the works about the decline of American culture and society and his publisher was looking for a title to hold the thing together. When Gladwell’s work became a big bestseller, it seemed like good marketing sense to call LeGault’s book Think, as if it were written in response to Gladwell. Think contains no primary research, no fresh insights. Mostly it is an unremitting complaint about the degradation of American life by purveyors of pop culture, pop psychology, feel-good experts, and marketing gurus.

In his book Blank, Noah Tall (a pseudonym) gives an excellent reason to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: you can’t understand the brilliant humor of Blank until you have read Blink. Tall offers an ironic version of each of Gladwell’s case histories to show how ridiculous the blink judgment actually is. He, too, finds psychologists working on exotic theories of human behavior. For example, there is the TAVIACI syndrome, which means The Average Voter Is A Complete Idiot. “By a coincidence that can only be called extraordinary,” he writes, “it was discovered by Dr. Gaetano Taviaci of Vesuvio University & Pizzeria in Naples.” Even Abraham Lincoln, “an ambitious gay activist from Illinois, failed to impress voters until he started wearing a hat taller than anyone else’s.” That distinction enabled him to capture the entire idiot vote, which was enough to get him elected.

Then there is Dr. Ian Plegg, who mapped out “the third hemisphere” of the brain. Plegg, the first man ever to receive a doctorate in Scientology, discovered the “little-known lower subbasement hemisphere, or the LSBH.” He would have won a Nobel Prize for his work, “but some of his more envious colleagues pointed out that ‘hemi’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘half,’ and that technically you can’t have a third half.”

As for the Greek sculpture that fooled the Getty Museum, Blank transports it to the Oprah Winfrey Museum of Fine Art in Cicero, Illinois. The curator brings in the scientists, who confirm its antiquity; along comes a postal worker eating a limburger sandwich who says the statue doesn’t smell right. Then a bevy of art experts declares it a fake. The curator takes it to the ultimate experts at the television program Antiques Roadshow, who declare it to be definitely 19th century. Having paid $9.7 million for the phony statue, the dejected curator auctions it on eBay for $2,750. (When the statue turns out to be genuine, the curator shoots himself.)

The bottom line, I surmise, is that it takes years and years of deep study to become truly expert so that you are then qualified to make snap decisions.

Diane Ravitch is research professor of education, New York University, and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Comment on this article
  • Anas Avais says:

    Blink is a fascinating book! I would describe Blink as promoting self-awareness more than self-help. It’s a captivating exploration of the ability of our unconscious minds to accurately(much of the time)read the world around us. The psychological studies featured offered refreshing evidence that it isn’t always in our best interest to slow down and think rationally. I wouldn’t base an investment strategy on Gladwell’s “thin-slicing” methods, but when it comes to matters of life and death, love, trust and marriage, oh, and battle tactics, Blink makes a convincing argument to “go with our gut.

  • John P. Brooks says:

    As the article states, “blink decisions are only worthwhile when they are made by people with years of experience”.
    Thus, a good policy in this regard, might be to learn to practice a balance of both intuitive and critical thinking. For example, critical thinking might be used (as a general rule), to assess matters that don’t typically require one to make “snap judgments”, in order to acquire the “education” that might enable one to make better “snap judgments”about related matters that might be required in future decisions.

  • Keira Dodd says:

    It appears as if Ravitch either didn’t read the whole book or deliberately took examples out of context. Gladwell answers every point she makes. In Chapter Four, for example, he explains that researchers obviously have to gather a ton of information in order to back up their theories, but then he also explains why having too much information can cloud one’s judgment in certain situations, such as when on the battlefield, trying to determine the best strategy in the heat of battle, or when in the ER, trying to judge whether or not a person is having a heart attack. In the latter example, he isn’t so much arguing that people should use their instincts to make that call, but that having too much information actually can make it harder to predict the severity of the situation.

    Basically, his main point is that we’ve completely tossed out instinctual thinking based on experience to pray at the shrine of reasoned judgment based on mountains of data, when BOTH ways of thinking are necessary. It all depends on the situation.

    He also explains how one’s experience over time can help a person to hone his or her ability to make worthwhile snap judgments, while also highlighting how our snap judgments can be wrong, especially in the area of race. Again, Ravitch appears to have completely skipped the chapter on Warren G. Harding, who was elected mostly because he looked presidential, and not because he was actually qualified for the position. Clearly, we should be wary of relying entirely on our gut feelings when we come across an African immigrant at night because we KNOW that our country has a problem with race. Just because that particular situation is one that requires self-awareness doesn’t mean that gut feelings as a whole are completely bogus.

    What makes Ravitch’s dismissal of Gladwell’s findings particularly offensive is that she is a big name in the area of education. Obviously, education has a problem with an over-reliance on data from standardized tests, an over-reliance that damages a teacher’s ability to rely on his or her own experience and requires that a teacher explain everything he or she does, which coincidentally is another topic Gladwell touches on. When a person is required to explain his or her snap judgments, even when they are accurate, they often can’t explain them. The act of verbalizing itself often diminishes one’s ability to perform. The problem with forcing teachers to reflect constantly on their performance is that it makes teaching less an art, and more a robotic science, which isn’t at all a promising metaphor for what teachers actually do in the classroom.

    There’s a time and a place for data, as all good teachers recognize, but there’s also a time when enough is enough. Gladwell’s message, which has been casually dismissed and even mocked by people with less forward thinking than he, is an important one in this day and age, when we are becoming more and more dependent on data and less and less connected to what our own experiences can teach us.

    As anyone with any experience in statistics can tell you, the data can be wrong, and individual experiences are often more complex than numbers can convey. Humans aren’t algorithms, and it behooves us to remember that fact if we are going to progress in any meaningful way towards our potential as complete human beings, honoring what we as humans can accomplish when we see and feel the big picture, instead of drowning ourselves in the minute details.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform