Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

girl running - by an untrained eye [flickr] - cc-by-ncThis book report was written by Tamarack Hockin, Spring 2015.

Gladwell’s Blink (2005) is a series of overlapping essays about rapid cognition. As alluded to in the book’s subtitle, “the power of thinking without thinking,” Gladwell’s rapid cognition is about how decisions are made when little time is available; how we process complex information without fulsome, conscious understanding.

Some of Gladwell’s examples of rapid cognition feature predictive knowledge acquisition that can’t be verbalised, but is ultimately found to be true—such as the uncovering of a sophisticated art forgery, or the outcome of a tennis match. Other examples highlight the power of extrapolation, and how less information (Gladwell refers to this as “thin slicing”) can sometimes give equal or superior results—as in the studies of ER screening for heart attacks, or case histories given to psychologists. Others tell stories of how stereotyping and prejudice can rise to the surface when unchecked by conscious thought—as in the shooting of unarmed Guinean, Amadou Diallo, by white policemen in the Bronx.

One of the stories in Blink describes a US military war games project which pitted the US (“Blue Team”) against a rogue military commander and his guerilla team (“Red Team”).The game plays out favourably for Red Team, whose success is attributed to being nimble, distributed, and limited in whole-team processes. Gladwell discusses Blue Team’s mistakes in terms of an information processing failure. Blue Team is criticised for losing themselves in data collection and elaborate systemic processing. In a section titled When less is more, Gladwell quotes Paul Van Riper, leader of the Red Team, regarding Blue Team’s failure: “If you get too caught up in the production of information, you drown in the data” (p. 144).

Gladwell’s focus here is on which information processes best facilitate snap decision-making, but let us instead reframe the story to focus on the information processing itself. Now criticisms of Blue Team describe a problem with information overload. And information overload is a way of saying we are unable to get to the information we need—we are unable to discern, to exclude, and to retrieve successfully. Information overload is a filter problem; it is a failure of information retrieval, and it is an IS problem.

There are many ways to reinterpret Gladwell in the service of an information science perspective. At another point in the book, Gladwell talks about a musician, Kenna, who fails to reach radio stardom because his music defies easy classification. Gladwell repeatedly discusses “thin slicing” and the idea that sampling of a situation or person can provide either an accurate or inaccurate representation for rapid processing. Looked at through the lens of IS, we recognise a discussion common to information retrieval concerning how best to represent and index a document. We are able to look at Gladwell’s discussions on cognition and see a sub-conversation about the information.

For me, Blink was also a book about information processes. The concept of thin slicing which features so prominently throughout the book carries with it implications for information seeking and retrieval. When Gladwell discusses information overload, as in the story of Red Team/Blue Team, or mis-classification, as in the story of either Kenna or Amadou Diallo, he is hinting at the problems of information seekers. When faced with an abundance of information, and a finite time in which to process it, how do people behave? What information do they exclude, and what representations, or slices, do they rely on?

The information behaviour of Gladwell’s rapid cognition is happening so fast that the processes seem to be unknowable. Rapid cognition seems to be a mash of both information use and information seeking (Wilson, 2000) which leans partly on previously acquired information to make sense of new scenarios (a consideration which is included in the models of both Erdelez [2005] and Kulthau [1991]), but it also processes in real time. I find it a stretch to map Gladwell’s stories to a model for information searching. Rapid cognition is so far from what Kulthau sassily terms the “bibliographic paradigm” (p. 361) – both in the book’s delivery and the stories’ contexts– that the seams rip in my efforts to stretch and overlay IS models onto Blink’s journalism.

So perhaps the timely take-away of Blink is that information processing is changing. Looking at search, retrieval, and use in neat piles—looking at information as something trapped in the bibliographic paradigm—is limiting, and ignores the constraints of real-life processing. In practice, librarians will continue to work with student research project and other traditional reference scenarios, but for theory and research there is so much more to consider in the information processes happening in the wild.


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3), 25-29.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Wilson, T. D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2), 49-55.

Media credits

Tom: an untrained eye. Girl, running. CC: BY-NC 2.0

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