LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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3-star

by Malcolm Gladwell.

This book looks at how we instinctively know when something is right or wrong, based on our ability to “thin slice” a situation. 

Citing examples of art experts spotting a fake (that months of research had validated), a tennis coach who could call a double fault before it was played out, and a man who could assess a marriage’s prospects based on snippets of conversation, Gladwell recounts a wide range of psychology experiments, plus some more practical issues like information overload, and considers where these abilities might come from.

But it was where he looked at our failure to correctly “thin slice” a situation that my enjoyment of this book crumbled. In a chapter about a police-shooting, Gladwell theorised how the officers involved became “temporarily autistic” causing them to misjudge their innocent victim’s intentions, and so kill him. He bases this theory on the particular functioning of a single (stereotypical) autistic individual, rather than autism in general. He cites research into autistic neurology, and occasions when neurotypical thinking mirrors autistic thinking (e.g. how we focus on the detail in moments of extreme stress); but what he doesn’t do, is put actually autistic people in the same situation, and observe their actions. (My feeling is, being less able to guess the victim’s intentions, an autistic person would be less likely to make impulsive judgements or actions, and much more likely to wait to see what happened.) This “temporarily autistic” theory is presented as science – but, while interesting as a theory, is a terrible piece of faux science with no reciprocal studies presented to support it. It made me wonder how rigorous he’d been with the rest of his research.

An excellent book ruined (for me) by one barmy chapter.

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