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January 19, 2005

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Blink 180

I went on a big Malcolm Gladwell kick in the beginning of January — go back and check my posts, you’ll see — ending last week with the reading of Blink, so here’s my take on the book.

I’d read several reviews before Blink came out painting it as some sort of self-help manual … How rapid cognition can work for you! (To be fair, Gladwell sort of promises this himself, in his introduction, which I think was a bad move.) Many were skeptical, like David Brooks:

My first impression of ”Blink” — in blurb-speak — was ”Fascinating! Eye-Opening! Important!” Unfortunately, my brain, like yours, has more than just a thin-slicing side. It also has that thick-slicing side. The thick-slicing side wants more than a series of remarkable anecdotes. It wants a comprehensive theory of the whole. It wants to know how all the different bits of information fit together.

That thick-slicing part of my brain wasn’t as happy with ”Blink,” especially the second time through. Gladwell never tells us how the brain performs these amazing cognitive feats; we just get the scattered byproducts of the mysterious backstage process. (There have been books by people like Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner that go deeper into the brain chemistry of it.)

The thick-slicing side isn’t even sure what this book is about. Is it about first impressions, or intuition, or that amorphous blending of ”what is” with ”what could be” that we call imagination? In some of his stories, it’s regular people who are making snap judgments; in others, it’s experts who have been through decades of formal training. In some experiments, the environment matters a great deal; in others, the setting is a psychologist’s lab. In some, the snap judgments are based on methodical reasoning — as with a scientist who has broken facial expressions into discrete parts; in others, the snap-judgment process is formless and instinctive. In some, priming is all-important; in others, priming is disregarded.

Moreover, the thick-slicing part of my brain is telling me that while it would be pleasing if we all had these supercomputers in our heads, Gladwell is overselling his case. Most of his heartwarming stories involve the lone intuitive rebel who ends up besting the formal, bureaucratic decision-making procedure. Though Gladwell describes several ways intuition can lead people astray, he doesn’t really dwell on how often that happens. But I’ve learned from other books, notably David G. Myers’s more methodical but less entertaining ”Intuition,” that there is a great body of data suggesting that formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver disease than the intuition even of experts.

(“Thin-slicing,” by the way, is what Malcolm Gladwell calls that first instant when our brain filters in only the relevant data.)

Don’t believe the hype. Or rather, don’t believe the backlash.

The thesis of Blink is almost universally (and correctly, I think) identified as, “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” (Gladwell’s words.)

“Can be” should be emphasized in that sentence.

Like David Brooks, most of the critics who were underwhelmed by Gladwell leap into a defense of careful critical thinking. Or they fault him for not detailing how we can improve our rapid decision-making skills.

But Gladwell’s argument is merely this: We make snap judgments all the time. sometimes for the best, very often for the worst. But as it stands now, quick thinking is haphazard and poorly understood. We should pay much more attention to it.

In other words, Mr. Brooks, “formal statistical analysis” has a well-established place in our colleges and boardrooms. We’ve devoted plenty of resources to improving our ability to think with reams of data and time on our hands.

We should devote as much effort to improving our ability to think on the spur of the moment.

Time and time again, in Blink, those individuals with mad thin-slicing skillz are experts in their field. From decades of experience with their subject, their subconscious minds have picked up the ability to filter only the most relevant data into their snap judgments. Too frequently, they skip right over those instantaneous assessments and get down to the books, and the data, and the formal statistical analyses. They don’t realize that their minds have just handed them a cheat sheet — a few simple criteria that might guide the rest of their thinking if only the experts could harness them and understand them.

There’s no way Gladwell can tell us how to improve our thin-slicing techniques in general, because successful thin-slicing varies so greatly between each type of situation. Quality thin-slicing in the field of, say, law enforcement is drastically different from quality thin-slicing in the field of medicine. Blink does a wonderful job of arguing that the experts in all of these fields — in every field — should start figuring out methods to train or learn from our snap judgments.

One could accuse this argument of obviousness, true. One could also ask why, if it seems so intuitive, do job-hunting resources so frequently urge job hunters to “make a good first impression,” but so rarely go into specifics beyond dressing nicely and putting the resume on fancy paper.

Reviewers unanimously love Gladwell’s endless series of anecdotes from all over the sociocultural map. But they complain that he fails to bring the anecdotes together into a coherent whole.

I disagree, and if there’s a seeming incoherence in Blink, it comes from the impressive scope of Gladwell’s argument. He looks at where thin-slicing lurks in our brushes with race and romance and war and science and art and law and soft drinks and improv comedy. And he manages to show just how in every single instance, if we only seek to understand the mechanics behind our first impressions, we could be much, much better off.

After I’d gotten through a good portion of the book and it reallly sank in what Gladwell was saying, I went back and looked at some of the anecdotes that had previously made me ask, “Why’d he put this in?” They all fit.

I’ll leave you with this awesome exchange between Gladwell and James “The Wisdom of Crowds” Surecki, and this wonderful moment I’ve transcribed from Blink:

Picture, in your mind, the face of the waiter or waitress who served you the last time you ate at a restaurant, or the person who sat next to you on the bus today. Any stranger whom you’ve seen recently will do. Now, if I were to ask you to pick that person out of a police lineup, could you do it? I suspect you could. Recognizing someone’s face is a classic example of unconscious cognition. We don’t have to think about it. Faces just pop into our minds. But suppose I were to ask you to take a pen and paper and write down in as much detail as you can what your person looks like. Describe her face. What color was her hair? What was she wearing? Was she wearing any jewelry? Believe it or not, you will now do a lot worse at picking that face out of a lineup. This is because the act of describing a face has the effect of impairing your otherwise effortless ability to subsequently recognize that face. …

When you were faced with the lineup the second time around, what you were drawing on was your memory of what you said the waitress looked like, not your memory of what you saw she looked like. And that’s a problem because when it comes to faces, we are an awful lot better at visual recognition than we are at verbal description. If I were to show you a picture of Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein, you’d recognize both faces in a fraction of a second. My guess is that right now you can “see” them both almost perfectly in your imagination. But how accurately can you describe them? If you wrote a paragraph on Marilyn Monroe’s face, without telling me whom you were writing about, could I guess who it was? We all have an instinctive memory for faces. But by forcing you to verbalize that memory — to explain yourself — I separate you from those instincts.

Posted January 19, 2005 at 8:24 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy


I have a feeling that Gladwell and Surecki, in their way, are both extremists.

There is one situation where instinct (which is what I must call it, avoiding Gladwell's mediocre efforts at developing a "new language," a model of revolution for which I do not care) does tend to be the best judge, namely, when you don't get any further real input.

This happens, and I am told statistical analysis bears this out, on tests like the SATs. The first instinct is generally more correct, students are flatly told. During the test taking period there is no opportunity to do statistical analysis, which rules out a more reasoned approach to problem solving.

Past, reliance on instinct seems to be a round-about way to support traditionalist and populist ideals in politics. Thinking without new information supports pre-existing notions much more than those rare cases where a new insight is gleaned. To take a false example, "we all know homosexuals are disgusting." The homosexuals of ancient Greece invented elections. 100s of years later, the New Testament was written, a book that written after an attempted Hellenization of Judea, but which spills not one drop of ink on the subject of elections. Far more Americans are in tune with the conservatives conception of Christiainity than the history of the Pelopenese.

To return, Spartan citizens were some of the most militaristic in world history. But ask the modern what their 'thin-slice' is on the relative machismo of homosexual men and the answer is predictable, they are effete. As America, perhaps like Rome, relies on might, effeminacy is not a value, and hence reinforces anti-homosexual thought. That Alexander the Great or Richard the Lion-Heart were gay is simply not reinforced, or even doubted, in popular culture.


The best part of the Gladwell-Surowiecki exchange in Slate was Gladwell's response on Tuesday:

I cannot tell you how delighted I was to see you use the phrase "The Standard Model" to describe deliberate cognition. For some (largely childish) reason, I love giving ideas dorky labels and then hoping —- praying —- that someone else picks them up.

Isn't this what we all want?


Yes, that is also my favorite part of their interaction. Gladwell's such a dork. It's great.

Posted by: Matt on January 20, 2005 at 07:14 PM

Did I tell you about how I met Gladwell in Cambridge in 2002 and said, 'Hey Malcolm, what's your next book going to be about?', and he said, 'intuition'? I did? Okay I'll shut up now.

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