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Saturday, September 10, 2011
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Psychology ...

A friend at work recently loaned me a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and I’ve been cruising through it over the past few days (it’s a fairly easy read, with lots of anecdotes; interestingly, a movie is being made about it, to be released later this year). Gladwell’s main point is that we humans are built to make snap judgments about things and people that we see or encounter for the first time, based upon initial impressions; and that such judgments are generally more accurate than you might expect. He calls this the “thin slicing” technique of decision making.

But Gladwell also points out that “blink” judgments are sometimes wrong, and offers some conjectures about what can throw us off when we start judging books by their covers. To be honest, Gladwell doesn’t really leave you with much to help decide whether and when to trust your gut instincts, and when to re-think them. He gives a few examples of the many overt and subconscious prejudices that people harbor, but doesn’t say how to detect when these are blinkering your blink. This book is kind of “blinky” in itself, actually; various critics have said that the evidence for Gladwell’s contentions is usually quite thin. But the stories in it are interesting enough.

One of Gladwell’s stories regards Warren Harding, 29th President of the US and arguably the worst one ever. This was an instance when the “thin slicing” of a first impression let us down. According to Gladwell, Harding’s strongest asset was his looks; he was 6 feet tall and had the face and body of a Roman Senator. People supposedly viewed the guy and immediately thought “great leader”. But it turned out not to be so. Sometimes those thin-sliced “blink” judgments get us into trouble.

I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Obama’s quick rise to power was fueled largely by “The Look”. Sure, he gave (and still gives) a great speech, but half of the impact of a great speech comes from the look of the speaker. If the speaker looks great while speaking, the speech itself is already half way to greatness. Mr. Obama, standing at 6 foot 1 inch himself, certainly had “The Look”, more so that the capable but somewhat dowdy Hilary Clinton, and much more that the over-the-hill John McCain.

So Mr. Obama has ‘The Look’ (although his ‘Look’ is starting to tarnish as the stress of the Presidency takes its toll on his graying hair and his wrinkling face); but does he have “The Feel” for leadership? A lot of people are questioning that. I, along with many of the pundits, can’t help but be reminded of Jimmy Carter.

Carter wasn’t all that tall relative to modern presidents (5 feet 9 ½ inch; since 1960 and JFK’s inauguration, presidents have averaged 6 feet ½ inch tall; whereas the average American male height in 2005 was 5 feet 9 ¼ inch). But he had great hair and a handsome boyish face when he beat the taller but older and balding Gerald Ford in 1976. Unfortunately, Mr. Carter turned out not to have “The Feel”. He was right about most things, but Carter took reality too seriously and let it interfere with his governing process. This made him appear confused and uncertain. So America replaced him in 1980 with an older but taller actor who did not let reality get in the way of his leadership role. And the country felt better, even though it was by sheer luck that things eventually got better.

Unfortunately, Obama may soon be going up against either Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, both of whom are tall and have “The Look” going for them despite their age. Rick Perry especially, as he has a broad-shouldered body and chiseled aging face not unlike Ronald Reagan. I can’t help but wonder – and fear, actually – that after four years of Obama’s reality-based leadership style, America will again turn to a broad-shouldered guy who sticks to his script no matter what the facts say. If that were to happen all over again, I’ll be praying that our country gets lucky once more as in Mr. Reagan’s eight years, when our economy strengthened and our enemies weakened.

If not, then we are going to blink a lot, hoping that it is all just a dream. But all the blinking in the world won’t wake us up from the nightmare.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:50 pm      

  1. Jim, After having read the material in the link you provide in your blog, I feel it must have been Gladwell’s concept of “Blink” that kept me from buying this book. It may be possible that the book is better than the review indicates, but I’m supposing the “summary” must be at least a close approximation of Gladwell’s tho’t.

    I find it incredible that the man would mix together “science, advertising, sales, medicine, and popular music to reinforce his ideas.” Without going into details, the question immediately comes to my mind: Why are not the scientists and the medical professionals yelling “foul”? How can one mix together science and medicine with advertising, sales, and *popular* music? Something is seriously wrong with that picture.

    Then, it seems Gladwell calls mind reading the ability of some people to know “what emotions a person is feeling just by looking at his or her face”! What?! Is this not what people have long termed “women’s intuition” but which is simply sensitivity in observing the smallest muscular changes in one’s face? Mind reading? Please! I am sorry to put it this way, but I just can’t help myself.

    There are other such similar types of attempts at “science”(?) when he lumps together gambling, speed dating, tennis, military war games, movies, malpractice suits, and predicting divorce!

    Frankly, I find both Gladwell’s and Gottman’s work on marital relationships flawed scientifically—and heaven knows, I’m very poor in the “science department”, but even for me I can see a problem with their “prediction”. It seems these 2 men seem to believe that “analyzing a normal conversation between a husband and wife for an hour” will predict with 95% accuracy whether or not they will stay married 15 years. Maybe so. But my first question is: Has either Gottman and/or Gladwell done at least a 15 year study on these individuals predicted to stay married or not? Or maybe I’m just hopelessly unaware of breakthroughs in marriage counseling. Wouldn’t one think, tho, that if Gottman (and Gladwell) were correct, this information would be heralded by the news media?

    Then on to Gladwell’s study of Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System: I refer above to “women’s intuition.”

    As to the coming movie with Leonardo DiCaprio: They already have a semi-interesting program on TV that does the same thing that Gladwell is talking about—and that presumably the movie will do. The TV program is called “The Mentalist” on CBS. Actually, the program is not all that good—a kind of mish-mash between a Sherlock Holmes kind of character and a man who solves crimes someway or other. The program is remarkable for the fact that the man who plays the lead character is such a good actor. He conveys mountains of emotional information simply by the look in his eyes and/or the change in the musculature of his facial features—oh, so very subtle but, when one looks carefully, so filled with information. He’s a consummate actor. But I doubt he’d call it “science.” Then too, I mentioned Sherlock Holmes who did somewhat the same thing—without the “intuition” bit—who “observed” and solved all sorts of crimes no one else could solve? He just observed “scientifically”. Gladwell reminds me of what happens all too often: When it’s “woman’s intuition”, it can’t be anything really worth one’s attention; but when it’s a MAN’s idea that “intuition” may be involved in obtaining information about the world around one, it’s worthy of a book and “scientific.” Maybe I’m a cynic, but I just can’t help myself here.

    I found myself writing in the margins of the printed out article that I read (from your link) the word, “DUH!” so many times, I got tired of writing it, and have cut by 90% my comments on this book.

    I am tempted to continue on and on here; but I will not do so. I WILL, however, mention something my mother told me when I was in about 4th grade. I came home the first day of school telling her that I just “loved” my teacher! She pointed out to me that in the few years before when I had found the teacher “wonderful!” on the first day of school; it turned out I didn’t like the teacher at all by the end of the year. And vice versa—to shorten her whole lesson to me. She was telling me that I better watch out for first impressions because they did not contain enough information; she was also telling me to gather enough information to make an informed decision. Frankly, I think my mother had it right those almost 70 years go; Gladwell seems to be taking the same idea my mother had and making a LOT of money off it; and I can’t even really credit him for any additional information.

    Then too, Gladwell’s material that says that too much information can cause bad decisions…. I tend to say that someone who goes on and on and on collecting information, past a certain point of common sense, is simply refusing to make a decision about whatever the situation is. One can easily use “I need to gather more information” as an excuse to avoid making any kind of commitment, decision, or to take any responsibility for making a decision in whatever the situation is.

    I do not mean to take out after Gladwell personally here. I think he’s laughing all the way to his bank that people actually swallow what he’s saying—somewhat akin to Harvey Levin of TMZ and his cynical attitude on his program regarding the people he writes about or the people who will be interested in reading what he is publishing.

    One more thing—on another topic: You tie Gladwell’s whole idea in with politics. I think you may be right about the coming election—will it be Obama or Perry? Who looks the best? Who is taller? People are getting only too used to making decisions about surface things that have no connection to the topic being discussed. When it comes to politics, could there be any other reason why someone like Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin has gotten as far as they have politically? Nobody is actually *listening* to what they say; they could recite the phone book—but they sure look good saying it.

    And one last thing: I simply cannot agree when it comes to Reagan. I think many of the serious problems we have today started under his administration. One big one is the air traffic controllers and the problems they have been having with planes almost colliding in the air. It was Reagan that went “union busting” on that group, and we are now left with the results. In addition, with all due respect to him as a person, he was suffering during at least his 2nd term with Alzheimer’s which was kept very quiet by all those around him and principally by Nancy Reagan. I find myself thinking that history may not take too kindly to Reagan’s terms of office. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 11, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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