Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell - Book Review

Blink’s subtitle is The Power of Thinking without Thinking and that’s pretty much what it’s about, except it’s not. Early in the book, Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, tells several stories that set his point up for him. He describes a sculpture thought to be ancient Greek the Getty Museum acquired and was about to put on display when several noted art historians expressed instant doubt about its authenticity. He tells of an experiment in which subjects are asked to play a game with stacked cards that subtly favor the red cards over the blue cards. Players began to alter their playing behavior way before they were able to determine that card color was the determining factor. In another example, he examines the work of a psychologist who has learned to predict with a high degree of accuracy the likelihood of a marriage’s lasting or not based on a fifteen minute conversation between the couple. In each case, the knowledge of the outcome preceded the understanding of the reasons for the knowledge.

On the basis of these and many other interesting illustrative examples, Gladwell’s thesis emerges. He says the subconscious often knows the truths of which the conscious mind is unaware. He says the subconscious mind is behind a “locked door” and this is a good thing, as we open the door perhaps to our peril. He calls these insights “thin slicing,” suggesting that we can often make correct decisions based on very little data. In fact, he says, sometimes too much data works contrary to good decision-making. He talks about “priming” as a way to effect decision making without people’s know it. For instance, showing pictures of successful black people to black students about to take a test has a tendency to increase their scores.

In one chapter, Gladwell describes the “Warren Harding error” as an example suggesting that thin slicing may not always work. Harding was an extraordinarily handsome and likeable man with a deep voice and a seeming concern for people. His image was so good that people elected him president of the United States without every discovering that he was neither bright nor thoughtful. He turned out to be one of the worst presidents we ever had.

In the chapter concerned with Paul Van Riper’s war he shows the advantages of deeply informed experience over theory and data. Van Riper was a retired Marine officer with extensive combat experience in the Vietnam was as well as command experience throughout his career. Van Riper was asked to command the Red (enemy) team in a large war game conducted by the joint chiefs shortly before September 11, 2001. In these games, the Blue (allied) team had the full resources of all the systems the joint chiefs could bring to bear on conducting a simulated war in the Middle East. Van Riper, using unconventional insurgent strategies and defying behaviors expected by the Blue team commanders quickly won the war. This would all be fine, except in a second run-through all Van Riper’s assets were taken away from him and the Blue team won going away. Much of the doctrine growing from the unearned second victory became the strategy for initiating the war in Iraq. The lesson learned from this experience, says Gladwell, is that rational decision making not informed by deep experience but based on process principles takes too long and often leads to wrong decisions. In the fog of war, the neat and clean decisions made in war planning often blow up in the faces of the decision makers.

The nagging question for me, as I read this book, revolved around the situation we’re now in. A president who trusts his gut and derides book learning has made bad decision after bad decision. He met Vladimir Putin, looked into his eyes, and knew he could trust him and work with him. Putin, during the Bush administration, has managed to re-create a near dictatorship in Russia, ruthlessly crushing freedom of expression and enriching a group of vicious oligarchs. Furthermore, he catapulted us into a war based on his instinct and the bad advice of close advisors without ever listening to or acknowledging the reservations of people who had greater knowledge and expertise. In fact, he ridicules expertise frequently.

Gladwell states pretty clearly that our quick judgments improve with expertise and deep knowledge. In example after example, he shows how people’s learning helps them prepare to make the quick decisions stress situations require or to make the informed judgments required. He also shows how to avoid the unconscious prejudiced judgments we often are capable of making. For instance, in one story he describes how using a screen to hide the performers in orchestra auditions led to a German symphony’s hiring its first woman trombone player over their preconceptions that women weren’t strong enough or forceful enough to do the job. He points out that experts internalize objective criteria, making their judgments more precise. Whether the field be analyzing food’s taste, couples interactions, or musical performance, an informed critic’s assessment trumps that of a novice. He says, “…whenever we have something we are good at – something we care about – that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impression.” (pg. 184) This may be the reason that having a professional politician who’s also an attorney might generally yield a better president. Why watching a professional musician listen to music, his own or someone else’s, is such a revelation.

In the end, the lesson of Blink is that our subconscious can help us see with more insight and make better decisions, but our subconscious informed by education and expertise is an even more powerful tool. Finally, there are times when finding ways to mask our unconscious mind can allow us to avoid mistakes we might otherwise make. Gladwell’s book provides an interesting and informative stroll through the workings of human decision making and helps us understand ourselves and others in a most readable format.

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell is published by Back Bay Books, a division of Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2005 and is available on-line, at chain book stores and from your local independent bookseller.