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Thursday, September 22, 2011
Psychology ... Society ...

As I mentioned earlier in the month (Sept. 10), I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, a popular book on decision-making. Thirty-eight percent of its reviewers on Amazon believe that it only merits 1, 2 or 3 stars. Even one of the 4 star reviewers says “The book is a series of semi-socio-scientific articles on insight and intuition. It is not a cohesive theory . . . Gladwell fumbles in trying take them into some unified theory that is comprehensible let alone cohesive.” My friend Mary basically agrees with that sentiment (see her comments on it); she finds it to be a desultory mix of topics and a grab-bag of sundry theories.

As to myself, I am also scratching my head, wondering why I don’t see what seems obvious to Gladwell, i.e. a big idea that will change how we and our leaders make decisions, big and small, and for the better. Not that Blink is devoid of all worth. There are a number of small ideas that have some value.

One such idea was elegantly presented recently in a short article on the Scientific American web site, entitled “Lessons From Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Tangle Two Lines of Thought”. Gladwell makes the same point — i.e., stick close to deduction based on the core facts of the matter, as there are pitfalls to a broad inductive inquiry in regard to daily matters. Perhaps his best example in Blink is the story about a Pentagon war game where the commander of a rogue nation quickly examines the facts and manages to sink half the US Navy fleet offshore, while the US command is churning through all of its data on the opponent (social, economic, political, military) trying to ferret out the rogue commander’s next move.

If Gladwell had stopped there, he would have been just fine. But he also wouldn’t have a “big ideas” book. So he tries to relate this military commander to an innovative marriage counselor, a pop music consultant, an emergency room administrator, a car salesman, on and on, in order to prove . . . I’m not sure what. That a quick emotional judgment of a situation is usually more reliable than an intellectual assessment? That a broad, inductive decision-making process which gathers anything vaguely related to a situation is worse than just sticking with a line of deductive logic based solely on the immediate facts? Or, perhaps even “straight line” deductive logic is inferior to the “gut feel” of the emotional brain? Gladwell suggests that the emotional brain can get it wrong when the decision-maker has a potential prejudice. So, when would that NOT be the case?

There was a good article in the October Atlantic Magazine that pretty much explains what Gladwell was trying to do in Blink, and why he probably failed. The article is by Marshall Poe, author of several books about Russia and some magazine articles on Wikipedia and other interesting topics. Mr. Poe was given the chance by a publisher to do a “big ideas” book about how spontaneous, widely collaborative intellectual efforts made possible by the Internet (such as Wikipedia) are about to change the world. Poe did his homework and eventually wrote a book; but in the end, he did not agree that things like Wikipedia were profoundly changing the world. His publisher thus canned his manuscript.

Poe says that he was just being honest. He states that “most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.” In the end, Wikipedia was too messy for a “big ideas” book akin to what Gladwell attempts with “Blink”.

When you think about it, human decision-making, the topic of “Blink”, is also too messy to be summed up “in a blink”. Actually, that proposition, in and of itself, doesn’t need to be thought out in detail. That one should be a “no-brainer”. I.e., something that you could reasonably come up with “in a blink”.

Ironically enough.

PS, Gladwell also has a good discussion in Blink about the Amodou Diallo killing by NYPD cops back in 1999, about what was going on in the heads of the cops involved. A decade later, “maximum cop-think” in situations involving white cops and black citizens still goes overboard sometimes, such as in the Henry Louis Gates arrest. But no guns were fired at Professor Gates, thank goodness. If that’s progress, let’s hope that the trend keeps going. Gladwell’s analysis of how and why police sometimes blink a bit too quickly may actually be of some help – even if his analysis here runs counter to his “blink-is-good” philosophy (if there is actually any philosophy hidden in this mixed-up book).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:01 pm      

  1. Jim, First, I have to thank you for making my previous comment on this book, Blink, sound so intellectual, when it’s really not.

    Second, I tended to keep thinking of all the things I could say to tear this book apart piece by piece, idea by idea. But then 2 words came to mind: Common sense. It seems Gladwell has taken plain old “common sense” and done a “media job” on it, making it sound like some major new concept(s)never tho’t of by anyone before. And he’s laughing all the way to the bank–for an idea that can be summed up in 2 words–common sense.

    I say it again: It seems to me that the sum and substance of the entirety of his book can be summed up in those 2 words–well, maybe a few more if one puts it in the imperatire: Use common sense for everyday decisions and things that do not require a whole boat load of thinking before one makes a decision. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 23, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

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