Before you can say 

Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating treatise on snap judgments is sure to inspire a following -- but can it change the world?

Topics: Books,

Before you can say 

Is there any contemporary American writer more agreeable than Malcolm Gladwell? Any writer, I mean, whose work is as reliably well received by so many different sorts of people — men and women, liberals and conservatives, business folk and academics, hipsters and wannabes, the serious and the silly? Search all you want: You won’t find a reader who doesn’t at least like Gladwell, and more often than not your hunt will turn up Gladwell obsessives — people who may consider the New Yorker’s politics communistic, its fiction dry, and its movie reviews inscrutable but who nonetheless subscribe to the thing for the work of just this one staff writer. And when, periodically, one of Gladwell’s dispatches pops into the magazine’s pages, the Gladwell obsessive will devour the piece, smile broadly and consider his subscription money very well spent, for he’s now chock-full of the most precious cocktail party banter — on why ketchup tastes so good, say, or why disposable diapers are like microchips, or why we ought to appreciate the good work of Ron Popeil.

Brace yourself: The release of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Gladwell’s delightful new book, is sure to inspire orgies of Gladwell-mania among the with-it set, and obsessives will soon begin popping up all around you. “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s wildly popular first book, established the writer as a cultural force. The phrase “tipping point” — which refers to the point during the spread of an epidemic or a fad at which a certain critical mass is met and after which, more or less, all hell breaks loose — is now a permanent fixture in the corporate lexicon, as common a biz-speak crutch as “core competencies” or “going forward.” A profile of Gladwell in Fast Company, whose cover this month is graced by the bushy-haired writer, notes that Donald Rumsfeld has even talked about the war in Iraq as being a tipping-point phenomenon.



The Fast Company piece also points out that Gladwell’s in high demand in the corporate world, commanding as much as $40,000 per speaking gig at executive conferences. If you are a fan of Gladwell’s work, you might characterize the situation thus: Gladwell has tipped. He has achieved the sort of celebrity unknown to most serious writers, and now, with “Blink,” he’s being called a new guru for our age, our century’s Marshall McLuhan or Peter Drucker or William Whyte.

One might suppose that all this attention would have discombobulated Gladwell, or that the hype would have distracted from the work itself, but that didn’t happen. The writer is in top form in “Blink,” and the reading here is a real pleasure. As in the best of Gladwell’s work, “Blink” brims with surprising insights about our world and ourselves, ideas that you’ll have a hard time getting out of your head, things you’ll itch to share with all your friends. At the heart of the book is a feature of human psychology that Gladwell calls “rapid cognition” — the ability of our brains to make snap decisions in the background, without our ever really consciously knowing about them.

This itself is a surprising idea; we’re not aware, Gladwell says, how much work our brains do for us in secret — how they’re always sizing things up, extracting meaning out of the tiniest details, constantly making sense of the world, even when we think we’re not paying attention. What’s more, as a culture we’re trained to discount such rapid cognition in favor of deeper thinking and greater analysis. First impressions are never thought to be as reliable as lifelong studies.

Gladwell wants us to revisit the first impression. “The first task of ‘Blink,’” he writes, “is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Listening to our snap judgments can be tricky business, however, and Gladwell documents the many ways in which our “internal computers” can be “thrown off, distracted, and disabled” (or worse — what if your unconscious is culturally skewed, preferring white people to black people?). He argues that to make the best use of our internal machines we have to learn how rapid cognition works, what screws it up, and how we can control it. That’s the real purpose of “Blink”: Gladwell believes that if we just paid more attention to how our brains process things, we’d get a much truer, smarter picture of what’s going on around us, and perhaps a fairer, more egalitarian world.

It seems unnecessary to ask whether Gladwell proves his theories — can the reader expect that if the ideas in Gladwell’s book took hold, it would, as he argues, “change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and on and on”? Finding an answer is really not so urgent, for Gladwell’s not a polemicist, and the breezy way in which he goes about his prose indicates that he’s concerned more with ideas and factoids than with outcomes.

This goes to what I mean about Gladwell’s being so consistently, good-naturedly agreeable; “Blink” won’t be the best book you read this year, but you might find that it’s the best book that you and someone with whom you usually disagree with can find some common ground on. There’s just no arguing with Gladwell. A good Malcolm Gladwell piece is a kind of magic trick; you read it for the giddy pleasure in learning some delicious anecdotes about our society (like the psychology behind the failure of New Coke, or the secrets to improv comedy) and for the thrill in seeing the writer tie these disparate artifacts into a grand theory. Does the grand theory hold up? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s an unfair question, a bit like asking if the magician really sawed his assistant in half.

“The Tipping Point” was a small book, just a couple hundred pages, but its success was built on Gladwell’s clever repetition of a few well-chosen words and phrases that seemed, from the moment you read them, destined to enter the culture — not just the titular phrase but also the names for concepts, like “stickiness,” or the titles he assigned to the key characters in his tale, the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. (Gladwell is also generally credited with coining the word “coolhunter,” and the “broken windows” theory of crime fighting, while not his coinage, was certainly popularized in “The Tipping Point.”)

He repeats this technique in “Blink” (also quite small), creating an entire nomenclature to describe the intricacies of rapid cognition. We get, first, “thin-slicing” — “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” By thin-slicing, our minds can just know; we can look at a situation, gather its essence in a few seconds or so, and extract meaning, order and truth amid the chaos of the moment. The first time he met Tom Hanks, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer tells Gladwell, he instantly knew the actor was different from others he’d seen. “We read hundreds of people for the part [in "Splash"], and other people were funnier than him. But they weren’t as likable as him. I felt like I could live inside of him. I felt like his problems were problems I could relate to.” And really, isn’t this how most of us feel about Hanks? “If I asked you what he was like, you would say that he is decent and trustworthy and down-to-earth and funny,” Gladwell writes. We like Hanks even though we don’t know him, even though we’ve seen him only in the movies, playing many different people. He seems likable to us because we’ve sized him up — we’ve thin-sliced.

We do this all the time in our interactions with others; people are constantly giving off signs about their personalities or their feelings, and we’re constantly interpreting those signs, even if we’re not aware of them. But making ourselves aware of them, Gladwell argues, can make things interesting. He cites a number of psychological studies that prove the power of thin-slicing. Want to know a doctor’s likelihood of being sued for malpractice? No need to look at the doctor’s professional history, or how well the doctor did in school, or what tests and procedures the doctor administers to patients. Just pay attention to how the doctor talks to patients, whether he or she is attentive. (More attentive doctors are less likely to be sued.) Want to know if a couple will stay together or break up? A good way to find out is by paying attention to how they interact with each other. If one partner shows contempt for the other — defined by one psychologist as statements that “try to put that person on a lower plane than you,” for instance, “You’re scum” or “You are a bitch” — then the relationship is probably not going to last.

But what if we can’t quite figure out the secret to how we thin-slice certain situations — what if we can’t determine why we like Tom Hanks or, for that matter, anyone else? Well, we have to find a way to look behind what Gladwell calls the “locked door” of our subconscious, and we also have to make sure that we don’t have a “storytelling problem,” a mismatch between our explanation of how we’re sizing up a situation and how we’re actually sizing it up. We need to think about the “Warren Harding Error” — the “dark side of rapid cognition,” the moments when snap judgments can “lead us astray.” (He calls it the “Warren Harding Error” for the mistake the nation made in 1920, when it elected a pretty awful president just because he seemed presidential.)

Gladwell has some fascinating insights into this dark side, and his section on the implicit association test — a psychological tool that determines your unconscious, “automatic” preferences for certain kinds of people by measuring how long it takes you to assign words and faces to categories — is the best part of the book. You can take the IAT here, but be careful. The unconscious is a mysterious thing, and don’t be surprised if your test shows you to have an automatic preference for white people over black people, or for thin people over fat people, or for young people over old people. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and consider myself, as most people do, exceedingly egalitarian in how I treat people, but, I’m ashamed to say, my test showed an automatic preference for whites over blacks. Gladwell, who is half-black, found a similar preference when he took the test. Indeed, he notes, of the 50,000 African-Americans who’ve taken the race IAT, half show an automatic preference for whites.

This doesn’t mean that Gladwell (or others, like me, who show a preference for whites) is racist. It just means that when he meets a black person, his brain makes a snap judgment; it forms an instant opinion, and the opinion it forms is lower than the opinion his brain forms of white people. And these instant opinions do affect the way we interact with people, Gladwell writes. If your unconscious has an automatic preference for white people and a black person comes to you for a job interview, “chances are you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less.”

You’ll do this without even knowing you’re doing it, Gladwell says. And the person you’re interviewing will come to a snap judgment about the way you’re acting, and so he or she will act less confident and come off as unfriendly. And then your unconscious will pick up on the person’s lack of confidence and come to the conclusion that he or she is not right for the job. “What this unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview hopelessly off course.”

But here’s the really compelling part, the thing you’ll call your friends about: Our first impressions, our unconscious preferences, are not stuck in stone. Many Americans show a preference for whites over blacks because our role models, the people we see around us, are white. But if you take some measures to expose yourself to minorities on a regular basis “and become comfortable with the best of their culture,” Gladwell writes, your unconscious preferences will change. It’s true that this sounds, at first, pretty naive: If you just accept the virtues of multiculturalism the world will become a better place, Koom Ba Yah. But Gladwell’s argument is, he says, supported by research. You can take the IAT dozens of times and never change your score, but it turns out that if you look at articles and pictures about black leaders like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. just before you take the test, you’ll get a different score. Your unconscious synthesizes the new information and, on the basis of just this little bit, comes up with a new opinion of African-Americans relative to whites.

Still, it’s hard to know what to do with this news about how our unconscious works. As someone who has been tagged as having a preference for whites, I suppose I’d like to do as Gladwell says and fraternize with greater numbers of minorities so that when I want to “meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority,” I’m not “betrayed by [my] hesitation and discomfort.” The thing is, though, I don’t think I am often hesitant and uncomfortable around blacks; as far as I’m concerned, I think I behave normally around them. Gladwell’s book makes a good case that I may be wrong and that I may be unconsciously displaying my unconscious preferences to the people I meet. But the peculiarities of his method — that agreeable, undemanding prose style — don’t help to convince me that the situation’s especially grave, certainly not grave enough to greatly alter how I live my life, not to mention to how we structure our society. In the end I’m moved to do not very much about the IAT other than just talk about it — about how interesting it is, about how curious it reveals us to be — and leave it at that.

If you’re looking for one, this is the main flaw in Gladwell’s work: He sees great meaning in the connections between many bodies of research, and he claims nothing less than that the meaning he has extracted could possibly change life as we know it. But in the end he’s not very specific about how such changes will occur, or about how we should proceed in implementing the things he shows us. There are likely to be many readers who’ll feel empty by the end, who will question whether the entire theory actually means anything or whether, instead, they’ve just been treated to a tour of Gladwell’s really fabulous cabinet of strange wonders, and that all there is to do about it is discuss what they saw.

This is the hollow feeling one gets, certainly, from two of the most nominally serious parts of “Blink” — its examination of wartime combat and of police work through the lens of rapid cognition. Gladwell tells us that it’s better to fight battles spontaneously — as Paul Van Riper, a legendary Marine commander, advocates — rather than in a carefully orchestrated manner, as the U.S. military has done of late. And in a remarkable chapter, he probes the second-by-second tragic drama of the Amadou Diallo police shooting and concludes that the officers who killed Diallo succumbed to a failure of rapid cognition, a breakdown of their brains’ ability to “read” Diallo’s mind and infer his intentions. (Diallo was reaching for a wallet in his pocket, but the officers thought he had a gun and they unloaded their weapons into him, shooting 41 bullets.)

These sections provide intriguing narratives, and they do give us some basic outlines for how we might improve the military and police work. “Truly successful decision making,” Gladwell writes, “relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking,” and we could build a better military, he argues, if we created “an environment where rapid cognition” and spontaneity were possible. This is a rather vague proposal; Gladwell doesn’t address the difficulties of integrating spontaneity into a rigid structure like the military, nor any ethical or political objections we may have to letting subordinates act on their own. In the section on Diallo, meanwhile, Gladwell suggests formally training police officers to deal with the sort of intense, acute stress that the cops faced the night they approached Diallo. “Mind reading” — a cop’s capacity to guess whether the man they’re after has a gun or a wallet in his pocket — “is an ability that improves with practice,” Gladwell says. But would such practice have benefited the cops in the Diallo case? Could that shooting have been avoided if the police were trained as better mind readers? All that Gladwell has on this question is his own speculation; no experts support that view. And that’s really all he can have, for there’s no real evidence that such training would have saved Diallo’s life.

But as I said above, to charge Gladwell with uselessness is to miss his intentions; clearly he doesn’t mean to be useful, only interesting, and there he succeeds. Still, some folks will find much utility to “Blink” — business people. Gladwell’s fascinating chapter on how the complexities of rapid cognition interfere with marketers’ ability to determine what we actually think about their products must, I imagine, be a hot item among CEOs at the moment. None of them would want to make the mistake Coke did two decades ago when it used the results of blind taste tests between its cola and Pepsi to decide that Americans didn’t like Coke, and that it should develop a new (and ultimately failed) formula for its drink. But the truth, Gladwell points out, was that Americans didn’t like Coke only when they sipped it blind — and that made all difference. It turns out that when you see Coke poured out of the Coca-Cola can, and you drink a whole can rather than a sip, Coke tastes better. If the Coca-Cola Co. had only understood the mysteries of rapid cognition, it could have saved itself a great deal of money.

Perhaps this is what, in the end, will come of “Blink” — Gladwell will save big companies from making stupid mistakes. Certainly “The Tipping Point” has given a great many firms insight into how to market to us, and if they’re more successful now because of Gladwell, is there really anything so bad about that?

One request, though, corporate America: Don’t start using “thin-slicing” in your press releases.

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