Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

      Blink The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

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The Statue That Didn’t Look Right

In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco
Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.
He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from
the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros — a
sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg
forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two
hundred kouroi in existence, and most have been recovered
badly damaged or in fragments from gravesites or
archeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved.
It stood close to seven feet tall. It had a kind of light-colored
the glow that set it apart from other ancient works. It was an
extraordinary find. Becchina’s asking price was just under $10
The Getty moved cautiously. It took the kouros on loan and
began a thorough investigation. Was the statue consistent with
other known kouroi? The answer appeared to be yes. The style
of the sculpture seemed reminiscent of the Anavyssos Kouros in
the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, meaning that it
seemed to fit with a particular time and place. Where and when
had the statue been found? No one knew precisely, but
Becchina gave the Getty’s legal department a sheaf of
documents relating to its more recent history. The kouros, the
records stated, had been in the private collection of a Swiss
physician named Lauffenberger since the 1930s, and he, in turn,
had acquired it from a well-known Greek art dealer named
A geologist from the University of California named Stanley
Margolis came to the museum and spent two days examining
the surface of the statue with a high-resolution
stereomicroscope. He then removed a core sample measuring
one centimeter in diameter and two centimeters in length from
just below the right knee and analyzed it using an electron
microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray
diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence. The statue was made of
dolomite marble from the ancient Cape Vathy quarry on the
island of Thasos, Margolis concluded, and the surface of the
the statue was covered in a thin layer of calcite — which was
significant, Margolis told the Getty, because dolomite can turn
into calcite only over the course of hundreds, if not thousands,
of years. In other words, the statue was old. It wasn’t some
contemporary fake.
The Getty was satisfied. Fourteen months after their
investigation of the kouros began, they agreed to buy the
statue. In the fall of 1986, it went on display for the first time.
The New York Times marked the occasion with a front-page
story. A few months later, the Getty’s curator of antiquities,
Marion True wrote a long, glowing account of the museum’s
acquisition for the art journal The Burlington Magazine. “Now
standing erect without external support, his closed hands fixed
firmly to his thighs, the kouros expresses the confident vitality
that is characteristic of the best of his brothers.” True concluded
triumphantly, “God or man, he embodies all the radiant energy
of the adolescence of western art.”
The kouros, however, had a problem. It didn’t look right.
The first to point this out was an Italian art historian named
Federico Zeri, who served on the Getty’s board of trustees.
When Zeri was taken down to the museum’s restoration studio
to see the kouros in December of 1983, he found himself staring
at the sculpture’s fingernails. In a way he couldn’t immediately
articulate, they seemed wrong to him. Evelyn Harrison was
next. She was one of the world’s foremost experts on Greek
sculpture, and she was in Los Angeles visiting the Getty just
before the museum finalized the deal with Becchina. “Arthur
Houghton, who was then the curator, took us down to see it,”
Harrison remembers. “He just swished a cloth off the top of it
and said, ‘Well, it isn’t ours yet, but it will be in a couple of
weeks.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ ” What did Harrison
see? She didn’t know. In that very first moment, when
Houghton swished off the cloth, all Harrison had was a hunch,
an instinctive sense that something was amiss. A few months
later, Houghton took Thomas Hoving, the former director of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, down to the Getty’s
conservation studio to see the statue as well. Hoving always
makes a note of the first word that goes through his head when
he sees something new, and he’ll never forget what that word
was when he first saw the kouros. “It was ‘fresh’ — ‘fresh,’ ”
Hoving recalls. And “fresh” was not the right reaction to have
to a two-thousand-year-old statue. Later, thinking back on that
moment, Hoving realized why that thought had popped into his
mind: “I had dug in Sicily, where we found bits and pieces of
these things. They just don’t come out looking like that. The
kouros looked like it had been dipped in the very best caffè
latte from Starbucks.”
Hoving turned to Houghton. “Have you paid for this?”
Houghton, Hoving remembers, looked stunned.
“If you have, try to get your money back,” Hoving said. “If
you haven’t, don’t.”
The Getty was getting worried, so they convened a special
symposium on the kouros in Greece. They wrapped the statue
up, shipped it to Athens, and invited the country’s most senior
sculpture experts. This time the chorus of dismay was even
Harrison, at one point, was standing next to a man named
George Despinis, the head of the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
He took one look at the kouros and blanched. “Anyone who has
ever seen a sculpture coming out of the ground,” he said to her,
“could tell that that thing has never been in the ground.”
Georgios Dontas, head of the Archeological Society in Athens,
saw the statue and immediately felt cold. “When I saw the
kouros for the first time,” he said, “I felt as though there was a
glass between me and the work.” Dontas was followed in the
symposium by Angelos Delivorrias, director of the Benaki
Museum in Athens. He spoke at length on the contradiction
between the style of the sculpture and the fact that the marble
from which it was carved came from Thasos. Then he got to the
point. Why did he think it was a fake? Because when he first
laid eyes on it, he said, he felt a wave of “intuitive repulsion.”
By the time the symposium was over, the consensus among
many of the attendees appeared to be that the kouros was not
at all what it was supposed to be. The Getty, with its lawyers
and scientists and months of painstaking investigation, had
come to one conclusion, and some of the world’s foremost
experts in Greek sculpture — just by looking at the statue and
sensing their own “intuitive repulsion” — had come to another.
Who was right?
For a time it wasn’t clear. The kouros was the kind of thing
that art experts argued about at conferences. But then, bit by
bit, the Getty’s case began to fall apart. The letters the Getty’s
lawyers used to carefully trace the kouros back to the Swiss
physician Lauffenberger, for instance, turned out to be fakes.
One of the letters dated 1952 had a postal code on it that didn’t
exist until twenty years later. Another letter dated 1955
referred to a bank account that wasn’t opened until 1963.
Originally the conclusion of long months of research was that
the Getty kouros was in the style of the Anavyssos kouros. But
that, too, fell into doubt: the closer experts in Greek sculpture
looked at it, the more they began to see it as a puzzling pastiche
of several different styles from several different places and time
periods. The young man’s slender proportions looked a lot like
those of the Tenea kouros, which is in a museum in Munich,
and his stylized, beaded hair was a lot like that of the kouros in
the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His feet, meanwhile,
were, if anything, modern. The kouros it most resembled, it
turned out, was a smaller, fragmentary statue that was found by
a British art historian in Switzerland in 1990. The two statues
were cut from similar marble and sculpted in quite similar
ways. But the Swiss kouros didn’t come from ancient Greece. It
came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980s. And
what of the scientific analysis that said that the surface of the
Getty kouros could only have aged over many hundreds or
thousands of years? Well, it turns out things weren’t that cut
and dried. Upon further analysis, another geologist concluded
that it might be possible to “age” the surface of a dolomite
marble statue in a couple of months using potato mold. In the
Getty’s catalog, there is a picture of the kouros, with the
notation “About 530 BC, or modern forgery.”
When Federico Zeri and Evelyn Harrison and Thomas
Hoving and Georgios Dontas — and all the others — looked at
the kouros and felt an “intuitive repulsion,” they were
absolutely right. In the first two seconds of looking — in a
single glance — they were able to understand more about the
the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to
understand after fourteen months.
Blink is a book about those first two seconds.

1. Fast and Frugal

Imagine that I was to ask you to play a very simple gambling
game. In front of you are four decks of cards — two of them
red and the other two blue. Each card in those four decks either
wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your
job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in
such a way that maximizes your winnings. What you don’t
know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a
minefield. The rewards are high, but when you lose on the red
cards, you lose a lot. Actually, you can win only by taking cards
from the blue decks, which offer a nice steady diet of $50
payouts and modest penalties. The question is how long will it
take you to figure this out?
A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this
experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after
we’ve turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop
a hunch about what’s going on. We don’t know why we prefer
the blue decks, but we’re pretty sure at that point that they are
a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us
have figured out the game and can explain exactly why the first
two decks are such a bad idea. That much is straightforward.
We have some experiences. We think them through. We
develop a theory. And then finally we put two and two
together. That’s the way learning works.
But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where
the strange part of the experiment begins. They hooked each
gambler up to a machine that measured the activity of the
sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like
most of our sweat glands, those in our palms respond to stress
as well as temperature — which is why we get clammy hands
when we are nervous. What the Iowa scientists found is that
gamblers started generating stress responses to the red decks by
the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that
they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks.
More important, right around the time their palms started
sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started
favoring the blue cards and taking fewer and fewer cards from
the red decks. In other words, the gamblers figured the game
out before they realized they had figured the game out: they
began making the necessary adjustments long before they were
consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to
be making.
The Iowa experiment is just that, of course, a simple card
game involving a handful of subjects and a stress detector. But
it’s a very powerful illustration of the way our minds work.
Here is a situation where the stakes were high, where things
were moving quickly, and where the participants had to make
sense of a lot of new and confusing information in a very short
time. What does the Iowa experiment tell us? That in those
moments, our brain uses two very different strategies to make
sense of the situation. The first is the one we’re most familiar
with. It’s a conscious strategy. We think about what we’ve
learned, and eventually, we come up with an answer. This
strategy is logical and definitive. But it takes us eighty cards to
get there. It’s slow, and it needs a lot of information. There’s a
second strategy, though. It operates a lot more quickly. It starts
to kick in after ten cards, and it’s really smart because it picks
up the problem with the red decks almost immediately. It has
the drawback, however, that it operates — at least at first —
entirely below the surface of consciousness. It sends its
messages through weirdly indirect channels, such as the sweat
glands in the palms of our hands. It’s a system in which our
brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that
it’s reaching conclusions.
The second strategy was the path taken by Evelyn Harrison
and Thomas Hoving and the Greek scholars. They didn’t weigh
every conceivable strand of evidence. They considered only
what could be gathered in a glance. Their thinking was what the
cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer likes to call “fast and
frugal.” They simply took a look at that statue and some part of
their brain did a series of instant calculations, and before any
kind of conscious thought took place, they felt something, just
like the sudden prickling of sweat on the palms of the gamblers.
For Thomas Hoving, it was the completely inappropriate word
“fresh” that suddenly popped into his head. In the case of
Angelos Delivorrias, it was a wave of “intuitive repulsion.” For
Georgios Dontas, it was the feeling that there was a glass
between him and the work. Did they know why they knew?
Not at all. But they knew.

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