Book Review: "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell



Blink is a book about snap judgments, why they are sometimes better than our reasoned-out deliberations, sometimes worse, and how to identify which is which.

The book draws you in with the story of a kouros, an ancient statue that the Getty Museum was considering purchasing from an art dealer.  Their experts had run all the tests, had dated the materials to the 6th century BC, and had conclusively verified its authenticity.  The sale was set to proceed.  But little by little, their certainty was eroded, not by contrary results from further analysis, but by the unnameable intuitive hunches of certain experts.  One simply said it didn't look right.  Another recalled the first word that popped into his mind when he saw it: "fresh."  Another said, "When I saw the kouros for the first time, I felt as though there was a glass between me and the work."  Another felt a sense of repulsion, without being able to name why.  Sure enough, upon revisiting the "conclusive" analysis and further tests, significant doubts about the work's authenticity began to surface.

This is but one example of many in Gladwell's book of how the mysterious intuition of the mind can, at times, understand a situation far better than even the best, most scientific analytical processes.  It can come in the form of a doctor recognizing an imminent heart attack risk, a music scout identifying the next breakthrough artist, or a lieutenant general outsmarting the most sophisticated war machine ever developed.  In each story, Gladwell shows that there is such a thing as "TMI" - too much information - and this could create very real problems.  There are times when a decision made in the blink of an eye will be the best one.

But it is equally true that such snap decisions can be harmful, even devastating.  The most sobering example comes from a tragic tale of a police shooting in New York City.  The black of a wallet being pulled from the victim's pocket was mistaken for a gun, and the too-quick reaction from a police officer resulted in the death of an innocent man.

What makes the difference between an accurate intuition and a faulty one?  One of the answers is context, and this is the first of the implications of Blink that I will explore.


In the 1980's, women made up just 5% of the membership of major symphony orchestras in the United States.  Twenty-five years later, their representation had grown to almost 50%.  What was the primary cause of this dramatic change?  Blind auditions.  New norms for auditions required that players sit behind a screen and be identified by a number only, rather than their name, so that judges could make more objective evaluations of their abilities.  This change of context negated the prejudices that judges brought with them into auditions.

We all have prejudices, even if they are not consciously embraced.  (For those who consider themselves the exception, spend 10 minutes putting that to the test over at  But what the above example shows is that overcoming prejudices does not always require a direct confrontation with that prejudice.  Sometimes it's simply a matter of shaping the context to minimize or eliminate it.

The first application of this must be for ourselves.  How can we be proactive in overcoming our own prejudices?  I think the first way is to take to heart that exhortation from Forming Intentional Disciples to "never accept a label in place of a story."  We have to acknowledge that we carry a whole set of presumptions when we hear labels like, "spiritual but not religious," "non-practicing Catholic," "atheist," "Protestant," or "gay."  Oftentimes we jump to conclusions and begin prescribing solutions to problems that exist only in our minds.  Only if we persist in hearing the person's actual story, maintaining that culture of encounter that Pope Francis is pleading for the Church to embrace, will we be able to deal with people as people and not as projections of our imagination.

The second application regards overcoming the prejudices of others.  The first work of evangelization is overcoming the preconceptions people have about Christianity and the Catholic Church so that they can consider Jesus as he really is.  But just as the prejudice against female musicians was not overcome through argumentation, apologetics rarely builds the first necessary bridge in evangelization - it is something in the context or the environment that does this.  This "something" could vary greatly, and it must because people will be coming from many various backgrounds.  But what this "something" produces is, I think, more universal - it elicits a sense of surprise in the person.  They might be surprised by joy, by goodness, by tenacity, by beauty, by fun, by excellence, by courage, by tenderness, by generosity, and so on.  In other words, don't be boring!  Peter Kreeft's Jesus Shock illuminates that this was very much at the heart of Jesus' own ministry - the one thing you were sure to get with Jesus was to be surprised!


I would not be surprised if Chapter 4 of Blink were the universal favorite.  It tells the story of Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a Marine and veteran of the War in Vietnam who became particularly known for his on-the-ground leadership and quick, critical decision-making.  Years later, Van Riper was asked by military officials to take the opposition role in a war simulation to test a new, highly sophisticated warfare system that was designed to analyze the many intricacies of war, including connections to the economic system, the cultural system, and personal relationships, and determine proper courses of action.  Van Riper was to play the role of "a rogue military the Persian Gulf" who had "a considerable power base from strong religious and ethnic loyalties" and was "virulently anti-American."  In the first iteration of the experiment, Van Riper's team pulled off a virtual David-beats-Goliath series of victories because of his unique leadership approach.

One of the keys of Van Riper's approach has to do with what he calls "the human element."  In an address before Congress, Van Riper stated, "War is shaped by human nature, the complexities of human behavior, and the limitations of human mental and physical capabilities... Any view of war that fails to consider fear, danger, and exhaustion is extremely suspect, if not irrelevant. Any doctrine or theory that neglects the human element neglects the central dimension of warfare."  Just so, the human element is central to evangelization.  We must understand the motivations, desires, joys, fears, and frailties of human nature to effectively evangelize.  Since grace builds on nature, we must get in touch with what is authentically human in others before Gospel-building work can be done.  This was the call of the opening lines of Gaudium et Spes, which read, "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts."

For Van Riper, the human element also applies to ourselves, and it influenced his leadership style.  Van Riper would tell those under his command that he would be "in command and out of control," meaning that "the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces...were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward."  So the human element also involves embracing the human element of your team.  It means trusting in their judgment and creativity in achieving objectives.  This reminds me of the famous Nordstrom Employee Handbook, which simply states: "Our One Rule: Use good judgment in all situations."

Can we create a culture that encourages innovation and initiative in our churches?  Can we trust in the good judgment of those who are "in the trenches" of evangelization?  I think it's safe to say that Catholic church culture in general leans towards rules and procedures, but the human element doesn't always line up with these structures.  It can foster a culture of dependence rather than promoting initiative.  So what would it take to shift more to an "in command, out of control" model?  On the one hand, it requires more deliberate training.  After all, those under Van Riper's command were not simply someone off the street, but trained officers.  On the other hand, it requires an environment of safety where taking risks is encouraged, and where progress is celebrated even when things don't quite work out.


A final note relates to an experiment evaluating a student in five areas: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences.  Having measured these results, the experimenters then asked close friends of that student to do the same evaluation.  After this, they had complete strangers do the same evaluation of that student, only they did not get to meet them or see them at all, they only observed their dorm room.  What they found was that the strangers' evaluations were much more accurate than the students' close friends when it came to evaluating conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences, all qualities that companies might be interested in when hiring someone, for instance.  The suggestion is that hiring might be done more successfully by observing someone's bedroom rather than by interviewing them!

One of the things Catholics tend to pride themselves on is being more substance than shine.  Sleek evangelical churches are viewed with suspicion as being too trendy or emotional.  But what if these seemingly "surface-level" aspects of a church are the equivalent of a peek into the church's bedroom?  What if the way you present yourself actually says something about your professionality, your conscientiousness, your ability to tend to what "really matters?"

This article, for instance, argues the point that a church's website is the new front door.  Something like 75-90% of potential newcomers will get their first impressions about your church based on the visiting your website.  What Blink highlights is that this is not always an unfair snap judgment!  But even supposing it is unfair, and that your clunky website does not reflect the quality of your church, it is still likely to be the case that you are missing opportunities to evangelize because of it.  Take for instance this young entrepreneur who boosted his personal income by more than half a million dollars in one year by making just one change - his wardrobe!

For those who remain skeptical, we should remember that it's not a question of whether image should or shouldn't matter, it's simply recognizing that it does matter.  And St. Paul shows us the heart of an evangelist when he says, "We place no stumbling block in anyone's way" (2 Cor 6:3), as by insisting, for instance, that they should care less about image, but instead, "I have become all things to all, to save at least some" (1 Cor 9:22).