10 Lessons from Blink

‘Knowledge is power’ is a popular motto, but it’s not quite right, is it? As the famous life coach Tony Robbins states, knowledge is merely potential power, and is beaten every time by real action to put knowledge into practice.

In fact, knowing something and doing nothing about it is worse than being ignorant in the first place, which is why willful blindness is such a common psychological trick: it saves a lot of work. For example, if I know I spend too much time on Facebook, that knowledge is worth very little until I take real steps to reduce the number of minutes and hours I’m throwing away each day.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell is a fascinating book full of valuable information crying out to be applied to everyday life.


As I wrote last week, I find it most useful to harvest a good read for lessons applicable to teaching, learning and beyond (there is a list of other posts at the bottom of this one), so I hope you find these nuggets of wisdom as useful as I do. I’ve divided the ten lessons into four key concepts:

A. Thin-slicing

B. Priming

C. The dark side of thin-slicing

D. Too much information


1. Many good judgments are made in the moment

‘We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately’…

“When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves” (Sigmund Freud)

We can make successful snap decisions thanks to an internal super computer in the brain known as the adaptive unconscious. We browse a series of sense impressions and comparisons with similar past situations to make unconscious decisions so quickly, in fact, that we confuse them for the mystical and inexplicable notion of intuition.

Knowledge into practice: What was the first impression of your new teacher or student? What were your sensations about the learning environment when you first arrived? Can this ‘intuition’ be rationalised by consulting past experiences? How did you choose your profession – rationally with pros and cons or by relying on your gut feeling, as Freud suggests?

2. Show me your room; I’ll tell you who you are

(That reads a lot creepier than I intended when writing it.)

‘Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend – or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet – understands this implicitly; you can learn as much – or more – from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face’.

The spaces we create for ourselves leave a lot of clues through a series of factors: identity claims – how we want to be seen e.g. the running bibs I have up on my wall at home; behavioural residue e.g. our level of messiness or organisation; and thoughts and feelings regulators e.g. incense.

Knowledge into practice: Clean your room, as Jordan Peterson would say. In a professional setting, even though it’s not a personal space, what does your classroom say about you? Are there books and unmarked tests all over the desk? What does untidiness tell our learners about their teacher? Which behaviours are we modelling?

3. Tone > Words

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Gladwell described a study in which an analysis of doctors’ intonation, pitch and rhythm in a 40-second speech could be directly correlated to the likeliness of them getting sued.

‘But in the end it comes down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is communicated is through tone of voice, and the most cursive tone of voice that a doctor can assume is a dominant tone’.

Knowledge into practice: How do you speak to your students? How does this change if, through no fault of theirs, you are stressed, tired or mentally not present? Have you ever recorded yourself teaching to hear how you sound to them?



4. Words subtly influence subsequent behaviour

‘Bargh and two colleagues at New York University, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, staged an experiment in the hallway just down from Bargh’s office. They used a group of undergraduates as subjects and gave everyone in the group one of two scrambled-sentence tests. The first was sprinkled with words like “aggressively”, “bold”, “rude”, “bother”, “disturb”, “intrude” and “infringe”. The second was sprinkled with words like “respect”, “considerate”, “appreciate”, “patiently”, “yield”, “polite” and “courteous”. In neither case was there so many similar words that the students picked up on what was going on. (Once you become conscious of being primed, of course, the priming doesn’t work)…After doing the test, the students were instructed to walk down the hall and speak to the person running the experiment…Bargh made sure the experimenter was busy, locked in conversation…

The people primed to be rude eventually interrupted – on average after about five minutes. But of the people primed to be polite, the overwhelming majority – 82 percent – never interrupted at all [after 10 minutes]’.

Knowledge into practice: Choose your words carefully. Which do you use regularly to welcome students? To praise students? To correct students? Is your feedback inductive to encouraging a growth mindset (more on this here)? Which words do you use when you talk to yourself in your ‘head commentary’?

5. We are creatures of habit

‘[Research] suggests that what we think of as free will* is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize’.

*The fascinating discussion of how we make decisions (free will vs. determinism) has consequences everywhere, so is worth the extra effort if you can spare it:

Knowledge into practice: If indeed free will is largely an illusion, how can we optimise our habit loops? How can we help students into the healthiest autopilot possible? More information from The Power of Habit here.


6. Appearances can be deceiving – The Warren Harding error

‘Daugherty looked over at Harding and was instantly overwhelmed by what he saw..An idea came to him that would alter American history: Wouldn’t that man make a great President?…Harding was not a particularly intelligent man. He liked to play poker and golf and to drink and, most of all, to chase women…His speeches were once described as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea”…[but] as he grew older, he grew more and more irresistibly distinguished-looking. Once, at a banquet, a supporter cried out, “Why, the son of a bitch looks like a senator,” and so he did…Candidate Harding became President Harding…He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history’.

Knowledge into practice: Do you spend as much time on your mind as on your appearance? How about your skills? How far will appearance get you in certain contexts (apart from the presidency of the USA)? What else do you need?

7. Mental associations

‘The IAT [Implicit Association Test] is the kind of test that hits you over the head with its conclusions…I’ve taken the Race IAT on many occasions, and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy [Gladwell, below, is mixed race by the way]…At the start of the test, you are asked what your attitudes towards blacks and whites are. I answered, as I’m sure most of you would, that I think of the races as equal. Then comes the test…Why was I having such trouble when I had to put a word like “Glorious” or “Wonderful” into the “Good” category when “Good” was paired with “African American”?…The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values…We are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good’.


Knowledge into practice: Try a few of the Implicit Association Tests for yourself to see where your unconscious biases lay: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. No amount virtue signalling will change the results, so redirect your energy: how do your unconscious biases affect the way you respond to learners and colleagues due to their sex, race, age or any other identity measurement? Did you really give the job to one candidate over another because of their qualifications and experience, or can certain mysterious intuitions and gut feelings be traced back to unconscious bias?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that anybody ‘check their privilege’ (the phrase is vague and lazy and makes my blood boil) and look for something to feel guilty about (I can barely get out of bed some days as I feel so terrible about being a heterosexual white male). Rather, ‘check your actual unconscious biases based on a respected test’ and try to engage your rational mind before reacting to ‘intuition’ in this matter (see 10.).

8. Listen with your ears, not with your eyes

‘I’ve been in [orchestra] auditions without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don’t affect your judgement. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart’…“Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,” one musician, a veteran of many auditions, says. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have that belabored look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear”.

Knowledge into practice: I might be strangled in my sleep by a Cambridge English hitman for writing this, but standardised speaking test such as IELTS and Cambridge exams rely on a face-to-face interview to test candidates. If we pay attention to Gladwell’s work, how much can we really assess somebody’s speaking while we drink in so many visual cues at the same time? Would speaking exam results be fairer reflections of a candidate’s level if examiners didn’t see who was speaking?


9. Quality beats quantity (related to 1.)

‘We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making…We have come to confuse information and understanding’.

Knowledge into practice: Does introspection always lead to insight? Where’s the point of diminishing returns with the quantity of data we gather on ourselves and our learners? When we strip everything away, what’s really important in what we do?

10. Awareness to Control

‘The answer is that we are not helpless in the face of our first impressions. They may bubble up from the unconscious – from behind a locked door inside of our brain – but just because something is outside of awareness doesn’t mean it’s outside of control’.

Knowledge into practice: Which decisions should be made relying on our adaptive unconscious (see 1.) to send us an emotional signal? Which decisions should be made by calling on our conscious mind to deliberate rationally? When can we trust thin-slicing? When should we be aware of its negative consequences and push ourselves to question our first impressions?

Other books harvested for knowledge:

The Power of Habit

Ego is the Enemy

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Blindness (Part 1)

Blindness (Part 2)

Pour Me: A Life


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