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This book will make you ‘Blink’

A few years ago, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles was about to buy a rare and large classical Greek statue of a young man, a kouros, for about $10 million. To authenticate their great good luck, museum officials had the statue examined for more than a year by various experts with state-of-the-art technology to make absolutely certain their find was genuine. Everything checked out. It was a sixth century B.C. figure made from an ancient marble quarry on the Aegean island of Thasos.
A famous Italian art historian was taken to admire the lovely find, but when he saw it, he instantly thought it was a fake. An expert on Greek sculpture, Evelyn Harrison, was next given a chance to see it, and when she heard the Getty had agreed to buy it, she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City, saw the treasure and, after one sour look, declared that it looked ‘fresh,’ not old. Statues just don’t look like that when they’ve been buried for centuries. He urged the museum to get its money back.
Sure enough, when the museum did a more exacting check of the documentation of the kouros, it turned out to be a fraud. It had been carefully made by Italian forgers in the 1980s.
Interesting how one glance, one look, can be so decisive, provide so much information, perhaps allow a crucial judgment to be made, perhaps save millions of dollars.
Malcolm Gladwell has written a fascinating book about this sort of super-speed cerebral activity called ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ If you think about it, thinking without thinking is something we do all the time. Just think of the important decisions you make in a split-second, whether it’s walking across a busy city street or deciding you like someone immediately. First impressions can be huge. Some will wind up having a major effect on your life.
Gladwell writes of exhaustive experiments that show how college students often make an impression of a professor in the first 10 seconds of their class. That impression may easily last a semester. Often, that impression is correct.
There’s a college researcher, John Gottman, at the University of Washington, who has filmed thousands of married couples talking. After studying only an hour of tape, sometimes just 15 minutes, Gottman, looking for specific clues, can predict with amazing accuracy which couples will still be married after 15 years. (The key is contempt. If contempt is present early in a relationship, it’s probably doomed.)
Gladwell also writes of other impressions that are made quickly but are extremely important. People who have been through extensive police and military training probably know this better than anybody. In shoot-outs or combat, quick decisions have to be made at times on scant evidence (what Gladwell calls ‘thin slicing’). The consequent action or reaction can easily cost someone his life. It really emphasizes the importance of adequate training.
However, even with tons of training, things can go badly wrong.
For example, one night in the rough South Bronx neighborhood, four cops were riding in a police car and they thought a small black person in a doorway in the projects was acting suspiciously for 12:30 in the morning. According to their training and judgments, he was a suspect, probably armed because he was so little. They backed the car up, piled out and started asking for a word with the man, who promptly backed into the hallway, terrified of these big, foreign white men in his neighborhood. He fled. Suddenly, it’s a chase, and the cops aren’t experienced. Their heart rates soar. In the dark hallway, the black man apparently reached in his back pocket for a weapon of some kind. A cop yells, ‘He’s got a gun!’ Shots are fired, many shots.
The suspect, Amadou Diallo, also reacted poorly in his haste, figuring the cops were going to harm him. He backed into the doorway and reached for his wallet, perhaps ready to give them his money.
His body was riddled with 41 bullets in about 2-1/2 seconds. He had no gun.
Other stories reveal how cops had waited until the last excruciating split-second to hold their fire and thus saved the life of an innocent person.
This split-second, snap judgment and intuition stuff is all very dicey and insubstantial, but the stories are fascinating. Other books of a more scholarly and theoretical bent have been written about the power of first impressions but surely none are as readable as ‘Blink.’