The Bright Stuff


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

By Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company. 304 pages. $25.95.

Malcolm Gladwell, the most original American journalist since the young Tom Wolfe, has produced another book that will change the way people think about the way they think.

Students of Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, would expect nothing less. No matter the subject of his magazine pieces -highway safety, the inherent limits of mammogram testing, or why there are so few varieties of ketchup - Gladwell has the rare ability to render the mundane compelling, to connect seemingly disparate subjects, and to routinely turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Journalism professors caution against describing anyone or anything as unique, but in Gladwell's case, it applies. Nobody else writes the kind of stories he does, because nobody else thinks the way he does.

Take Blink, his most recent book. Gladwell's premise is that decisions made quickly, or instinctively, with nothing more than "thin slices" of evidence, are often more reliable and accurate than those requiring great time, care and deliberation.

Harnessing this power, Gladwell believes, could "change the way wars are fought, the kind of product 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."

What's equally fascinating is why Gladwell decided to tackle the subject in the first place.

In the acknowledgments, he relates that a few years ago he let his curly hair grow long. Soon after, he started getting speeding tickets. He was held back in airport security lines. Then he was stopped by police who were on the hunt for a rapist. The only thing Gladwell had in common with the police sketch was his hair.

"That episode on the street got me thinking about the weird power of first impressions," Gladwell writes.

One might assume that most journalists operate this way -something happens, and they explore and challenge the thinking behind it. The truth is quite different. On almost everything, from government pronouncements (Iraq has weapons of mass destruction) to medical matters (pain pills are safe), the press tends to report what it is told.

The reasons are not necessarily nefarious. Reporters are often too busy, or lack the required expertise or access, to verify every detail. About the best they can hope for is to track down a dissenting view. As far as looking at the big picture, well, who has time on deadline for that? This is the area in which Gladwell excels. He's not interested in blaming the people who stopped him only because of his longhair. He wants to understand why they think the way they do, and how that thinking influences their actions.

This same curiosity informed Gladwell's groundbreaking first book, The Tipping Point, which was inspired by his theory that ideas, trends and much of a culture's behavior can be explained by viewing them as epidemics. If you locate a small number of the right kind of people, you can affect everything from the kinds of shoes teenagers buy to improving public health. Since the book was first published in 2000, the phrase "The Tipping Point" has entered the lexicon, especially in the business world, much as Wolfe's The Right Stuff did years earlier.

Gladwell is not Wolfe's equal as a stylistic virtuoso. His prose does not shout. "Look at me! Look at me!" Instead, it's more like, "Look what I've found. Let's think about it." Gladwell's writing is more aptly compared to the stories of another New Yorker favorite, John McPhee, in which pebbles of fact are layered on top of each other and, before you realize it, a pyramid has been built.

Like Wolfe, Gladwell has the ability to observe the way we live and to see things that nobody else does. Where Wolfe focused mostly on social manners and the importance of status, Gladwell is more interested in public behavior - how and why we act the way we do. Few reporters mine research studies, and fewer still produce their own original theories based on them. What's more, nobody shares Gladwell's talent for making those studies easy for lay people to grasp. If only high-school textbooks were half as engaging.

As he did in The Tipping Point, Gladwell in his latest book provides seemingly unrelated case studies to examine the strengths and weaknesses of first impressions, or as he puts it, rapid cognition.

He describes how a Chicago hospital significantly improved its diagnosis of heart attacks by relying quickly on an equation rather than the doctors' contemplations. He offers a cautionary tale of how a Marine officer, operating mostly on instincts, defeated the Pentagon's best and brightest in a war game. He introduces a marriage counselor who can hear a snippet of a couple's conversation and accurately predict whether they will be headed to Divorce Court.

That said, I'm not certain that readers will share Gladwell's enthusiasm for what he calls "Blink." So much effort is spent addressing what he acknowledges as the "dark side of Blink," most often in cases or race, gender and appearance, that some may wonder just how we are supposed to use this acclaimed new power.

Take the episode that inspired the book. Those police officers that stopped Gladwell on the street proved that snap judgments often are founded on harmful stereotypes. In a tragic example, the book describes the police shooting of an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. Those officers didn't blink, and an innocent man was killed.

Gladwell is undeterred. He says we have the ability to combat our instinctive biases: "Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions - we can alter our experience of blink - by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions."

This sounds like common sense, as does Gladwell's conclusion that we make better judgments when matters of race, gender and appearance can be removed from consideration (such as placing a screen in front of trombone players in orchestra tryouts).

In the Diallo case, Gladwell argues that people placed in high-stress situations, like police officers, can become "temporarily autistic." They need to consciously slow down the action, to draw on their training and experience. It's why many police departments now have officers work alone; the time it takes for a back-up to arrive often is enough to prevent a tragedy. Doesn't that argue against "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," as the book's subtitle puts it? Gladwell would counter that we can train ourselves to better use the power by addressing, and correcting, its limitations.

What the book proves, repeatedly, is that people who are experts in their given field - from art history to speed-dating - have earned the right to trust their own snap judgments, as long as they have trained their minds to avoid the inherent obstacles. Think before you blink, in other words.

Gladwell believes that if more people examined their behavior, and treated their instincts seriously, the world would be a better place. He may be right. All I know is that when I flip open The New Yorker and see Gladwell's byline, I instinctively read that story first. The world doesn't necessarily change, but the way I think about it invariably does.

Ken Fuson, an award-winning former feature writer for The Sun, is now a reporter with The Des Moines Register.

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