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Mark Law, Lead Tutor

Expert consulting practitioner with extensive experience in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Consulting Career Mentor to London Business School MBA students and Alumni.
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Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

BlinkFirst impressions (FI) can give powerful insights into the complex situations clients and consultants face every day. FI can fast-track our thinking on key issues affecting a consulting engagement. FI can also fool us into making major / expensive mistakes.

On the positive side Blink is a readable anthology of research and anecdotes about FI. It gets one thinking about the nature of FI and the ‘adaptive unconscious’ – the part of our mental processes that learns how to react quickly to certain situations. Some of these mental processes are built-in (i.e. we duck to avoid a snowball). Others are learned through thousands of hours of study and practice (i.e. jazz musicianship).

Interesting Research Described in the Book Blink:

  1. University of Iowa experiment. Two card decks (one random but favourable [RbF] the other random but unfavourable [RbU]) were given to subjects whose hand palms were wired to sweat detectors. The subjects were asked to place bets on the cards uncovered in sequential order. It typically took 50 cards for normal people to develop a hunch about each deck and 80 cards for them to be sure which what was going on with the deck they were using. However, the experiment showed that experienced gamblers developed an unconscious hunch in about 10 cards based on their sweating palms.
  2. John Gottman’s research (University of Washington). Series of psychological experiments in which people were wired for physiological reactions and then asked questions. Reactions were recorded and then thin sliced second by second. The research described focused on married couples. It was shown that it was possible to estimate the long term success of a relationship by just examining a few seconds of interactions.
  3. John Bargh’s research (New York University). Developed a ‘priming’ experiment in which he demonstrated that unscrambling simple sentences with random but, for example, negative words can affect subjects reactions. He managed to prime people to be polite and agressive using this approach. Also rersearchers put people into a ‘smart’ frame of mind can answer questions more accurately.

Interesting Anecdotes

  1. In 1985 the Getty Museum bought a kouros (a ~2,600 year old Greek sculpture) for $7 million.  Although it had been ‘scientifically tested’ and deemed genuine, the first impressions of a number of scholars indicated that it was likely to be a fake (it is inscribed Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery).
  2. Malcolm Gladwell (the author) was arrested more by the police when he grew his hair. Their first impressions of his appearance were that he was a criminal – not surprising when you see his mug shot at the front of the book!

Where First Impressions Fail

  1. FI leads to all types of prejudice
  2. How ‘priming’ can be used to distort / wrongfoot FI
  3. How sharp salespeople operate to wrongfoot a prospect’s FI
  4. The dangers of Hypothesis / Test => we ‘fall in love’ with our Aunt Sally / Straw Man

Where Blink Falls Short

On the negative side Blink has little to offer us in terms of real insight into how we can use FI ourselves. It also states the obvious, for example:

  1. There can be as much value in FI as in months of rational analysis (yes but be very careful)
  2. FI can be dangerous, misleading and lead us to prejudice (pretty obvious)
  3. We can train ourselves to use FI to our advantage (doesn’t say how)
  4. FI can be applied to lots of areas (yes, but so can many other things)
  5. FI can make the world a better place (so can many other tools or techniques)

True to the proverb “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, this glossy book is a frustrating read simply because it gets lost about two thirds the way through and ultimately doesn’t really deliver the goods. This book is long on anecdote but short on practical suggestions for using FI in our professional lives.

Click this link to access our growing collection of book reviews, recommendations and summaries.

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