Gladwell opens up with an episode that takes place in the fall of 1983, in which an art dealer named Gianfranco Becchina approaches the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He claimed to have a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC known as a kouros, a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. No more than 200 are left in existence, and most of these are in bad condition or have been retrieved in bits and pieces from archeological sites. However the one Becchina brought forward was in almost perfect condition.
Becchina’s asking price for the kouros was $10 million. The Getty took the kouros on loan and began a thorough investigation in attempt to authenticate it. The statue seemed to be consistent with other known kouroi, and its style resembled a kouros at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens – meaning it had a counterpart that came from a particular time and place. Becchina provided a bevy of documentation of the statue’s recent history, nothing how, where, and when it was excavated. A geologist from the University of California conducted tests examining the surface of the statue with a high-powered microscope. The statue was made of a dolomite stone that found in an ancient quarry in Greece, and also verified that it was covered in a thin layer of calcite. This was important because dolomite can only turn into calcite over the course of at least hundreds of years. This confirmed to the geologist that the statue was old and not a fake.
The Getty concluded its investigation, and after fourteen months it agreed to buy the status. The kouros went up on display, receiving glowing reviews from the Getty’s curator of antiquities. However the statue did not look right to a few people – namely an Italian art historian Federico Zeri (who served on the Getty’s board of trustees), Evelyn Harrison (a foremost expert on Greek sculpture), and Thomas Hoving (the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). They were all taken to the see the sculpture, and in what seemed like an instant, they all came to the conclusion that there was something off about the sculpture; all concluded that it was a fake.
Concerned, The Getty shipped the kouros to Athens for a convention of Greece’s foremost sculpture experts. The reaction to the statue was even more visceral, with some claiming that the statue did not look like it had ever been in the ground. George Despinis, the head of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, said that he thought it was a fake because when he first saw it, he felt “intuitive repulsion.” The consensus at the end of the convention was that the kouros was a fake. But with the Getty’s lawyers and scientists engaging in many months of meticulous research and investigation into the kouros’s authenticity on the one hand, and the “intuitive repulsion” of these experts on the other, it really begged the question of whose judgment was correct.
As the Getty looked further into it, it found inconsistencies in the documents that supposedly proved the kouros' provenance – a misdated postal code and an incorrect bank account number amongst them. It further found that the statue actually most resembled a forged kouros that came from a workshop in Rome in the early 1980s. It turned out that dolomite could be aged in a matter of a few months using potato mold, so even the geological results were brought into question.
How exactly were months of extensive investigation discredited based upon the “intuitive repulsion” that the aforementioned experts felt in the first two seconds that they looked at the statue? At first glance, they were able to ascertain and understand more about the statue than the Getty was able to in months of investigation. Blink is about those first two seconds.
Gladwell provides a few more smaller examples of how exactly the part of the brain, called the adaptive unconscious, that leaps to snap conclusions works. A newer, non-Freudian understanding of the unconscious maintains that it is like a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data needed for everyday functioning. Humans have survived as long as they have because there has been some mechanism that has allowed them to make quick judgments based on scarce information. Gladwell argues that humans are innately suspicious of this kind of rapid cognition, in which in a matter of a few moments humans make large, important decisions without the consultation of more information – that the world assumes the quality of a decision is directly correlated to the time and effort that went into making it. Gladwell’s purpose is to convince the reader that decisions made very quickly can be every bit as sound as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
Gladwell is also interested in understanding why such moments deceive humans as well – why did the Getty not have (or use) the power of the initial glance that the other experts did? He further states that these miscalculating decisions indicate that the unconscious is a powerful force, but it can also be mistaken, distracted, and disabled. Instinctive reactions often come with a plethora of other competing interests and emotions – so how exactly can they be trusted? This is the second goal of Blink. When rapid cognition makes a mistake, it does so for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons are identifiable and understandable. Gladwell says that it is possible to learn when to listen to the unconscious and when to be wary of it.
The third, and Gladwell says the most important, goal of Blink is to convince the reader that snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled. Blink chronicles a wide array of individuals that are all very good at what they do and all of whom owe their success, at least in part, to the steps that have taken to shape, manage, and educate their unconscious reactions. The power of the glance in the first two seconds is not a gift, but something that can be cultivated by everyone. Blink concerns itself with the stories on the ground, not vast statistical or academic generalizations. Understanding small fleeting moments can amount to significant discoveries, and the prerogative of making sense of humans and human behavior requires the acknowledgement that there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as there is in months of rational analysis.
An important thing to keep in mind about Gladwell's style, which heavily influences how his message and argument are received, is that it is told in a series of loosely connected narrative (loosely in the sense that they are not necessarily of similar content but of similar theme).
Gladwell opens up with an interesting story about something that happened two decades before he wrote the book: his scientific and case studies are by and large dealing with occurrences of the past few years. This is interesting because he provides a historical analysis of decision making with a contemporary touch, insofar as he is concerned with an ability to make decisions that develops over time.
His most important claim is that rapid cognition is something that people are inherently suspicious of, and it is certainly possible that the case of the Getty Museum that he presents is a strong argument for this. But also important to consider is the possibility that it simply took longer to analyze (via geological methods and historical analysis of the ownership of the statue) as opposed to "looking" at it.
So the concern is not that it is snap judgments or "intuitive repulsion" that is at work, but that it is simply a matter of time that decided the authenticity of the statue. This is important to consider, because it is the first of a few possible flaws or contradictions in Gladwell's arguments. Gladwell does not consider other possibilities whereby such an occurrence is one of happenstance, and the issue is that the reader does not know if Gladwell gives the entire context.
This is why it is important to be wary - not of the narratives themselves - but of the argument that they are used to support. At times, even in this chapter, Gladwell does not consider alternatives - because he puts his argument forth with such conviction, it is difficult to conceive of possible contradictions that arise (again, such is a common criticism of journalistic books like this one: the oversimplification of a study or a series of events).