Malcolm Gladwell: Blink

[editorial note: this review/essay/whatever was originally published as three separate entities over the course of a month.]

surprise benefits of pseudo-vegetarianism

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in fits and starts over the past two months — it’s on the library’s short-term loan list, so I request it, read as much as I can before it’s due, return it, and repeat. I don’t think it’s a bad way to read such an information-dense book; it provides opportunities to digest and reflect on Gladwell’s theses.

I don’t think he delivers on the implicit promise that has made his books bestsellers among business readers. The Tipping Point provides tools for understanding why some messages — like teen anti-smoking campaigns — don’t “stick.” But it doesn’t provide tools for making messages stick. I think that’s because societies’ response to stimuli is fundamentally chaotic. Ensuring any particular meme spreads is impossible. Even Steven Spielberg directed an unequivocal flop once.*

Blink suffers from a similar problem: it identifies situations in which rapid intuitive assessments — “thin-slicing,” in Gladwall’s parlance — are invaluable, and other situations in which they’re extremely harmful. It doesn’t provide foolproof guidelines for distinguishing “good” thin-slicing from “bad.” Again, I don’t think it’s a soluble problem.

I’m not an expert on cognition; I’m a lay person with probably just enough information to be dangerous. But I think a major component of what makes for human intelligence is that our brains are abstract pattern-recognition machines. The engine that recognizes individual human faces is the same engine that sees animal shapes in clouds and inkblots. I think it’s always going to be subject to errors, particularly in high-stakes situations that require snap judgments: “He’s drawing a gun!” versus “He’s pulling out his wallet.”

Even if I don’t think Gladwell’s books quite live up to their hype, they’re informative, provocative, fascinating, and lucidly written.

For instance, his account of Sheena Iyengar’s research on consumer choice provided insight into something that’s intrigued me for the past decade. Iyengar found that customers given an opportunity to taste 6 jams in a store were far more likely to make a purchase than customers who had a chance to taste 24 different jams.

I’m a pseudo-vegetarian. This generally makes dining out straightforward: most of the menu is automatically excluded from consideration. I usually pick from the small set of available options rapidly and without much conscious deliberation. When I dine at a vegetarian or seafood specialty restaurant, I have a larger field to winnow. My selection process is radically different (and much slower). I typically try to find the entrée that maximizes features I like: the one with the ginger, tofu, and straw mushrooms. Sometimes I experience a kind of stress that’s unusual for me: no dish has the poblano pepper sauce, guacamole, and melted jack cheese; I can only get different combinations of two of those ingredients. Then I feel vaguely dissatisfied with a meal that I would unhesitatingly and happily choose if I had fewer options.

Iyengar’s research suggests that this behavior isn’t just me-being-weird. Gladwell’s synthesis provides a framework for understanding it: I “thin-slice” among a few choices, but not among a dozen.

*Of course, Gladwell has certainly “tipped” his own books, so maybe, just maybe, he knows something about hidden marketing levers that he’s not sharing.

the warren harding error error

In Blink, Gladwell devotes a chapter to exploring what he calls the “Warren Harding error.” He contends that the primary reason for Harding’s political success was that the man looked presidential.

Gladwell doesn’t apply this line of reasoning to politicians of the current era (although later he does quote Paul Ekman — who, with Wallace Friesen, assembled the “Facial Action Coding System — claiming that in 1992 he saw Clinton’s tendency for marital indiscretions literally written on his face.)

Whatever I thought of his policies or the abilities he brought to the job, I think I have to concede that Ronald Reagan looked presidential (at least some of the time). He was certainly always too much the gunslinger for my taste. But he could be dignified without entirely losing the humanizing mischievous twinkle in his eyes. If he’d been an actor cast in the role of the president, I think I could have bought it.

The real mystery is the election — twice, yet — of George Walker Bush. The presidential debates of 2004 crystallized this for me. John Kerry with his imposing height and resonant voice, looked and sounded presidential. His opponent looked like a used-car salesman by comparison: shifty-eyed, almost sneering, his voice often distinctly petulant if not actually whining.

And yet he won. Where are you now, oh Warren Harding error? Come back. We need you.

In other news, I took a few of the Implicit Association Tests Gladwell describes in the same chapter (it’s essentially the “be careful about judging books by their covers” segment of the book). Gladwell (and Greenwald, Banaji and Nosek, who developed the tool) claim that the test design is effective even when you know you’re being tested (unlike many sociological tests).

I’m not convinced. I took a test designed to identify an “implicit association” (e.g., an ingrained unconscious bias, more or less) for males/sciences and females/liberal arts. I was prompted by the survey I took beforehand to think fleetingly of famous scientists like Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, and famous creative types like Julio Cortàazar and Pablo Picasso. My biggest problem was that every time I was shown the words “history” and “philosophy” I had to consciously think “soft science? or liberal art?” But taking the test to the best of my ability still produced outlying data.

Then I took a test to identify implicit associations between ethnic groups and positive and negative concepts. When I was told I was supposed to associate images of caucasian men with negative concepts and images of black men with positive concepts, I muttered “black, good; white, evil” under my breath. No sweat.

deli slices of security

I was initially critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for not delivering on its implied promises, but I’ve revised my opinion of it substantially. It’s had a real impact on the way I think about certain types of situations. I still don’t think it provides a foolproof method for applying its principles, but it does offer tools for identifying problematic patterns in processes. As one example, it provides a framework for examining my misgivings about approaches to security in the post-September 2001 United States.

The administration argues that the lack of major terrorist incidents within the US demonstrates the effectiveness of the Homeland Security and Transportation Safety initiatives. This argument is obviously specious. The lack of a major incident in the first half of 2001 scarcely proved that the US was well-protected from a terrorist attack in the second half of the year. And the penetration of the new system by the “shoe bomber” and razor-blade-toting blog readers (for example) makes a strong case that the new system is not necessarily more effective at threat identification than the old system.

Back when the major concerns of airport security were preventing the influx of drugs and illegal (but peaceable) aliens, I was involved with a competitive bid to develop training for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As part of the effort, members of our team accompanied INS personnel on airport security details and took some of the courses given to the agents. (For the record: all of the material I was exposed to was unclassified.) It was obvious that the most effective agents relied heavily on the sort of intuitive assessments Gladwell describes in Blink. In particular, they were very good at identifying people who had something to hide. Other people have written about the hazards of inexperienced personnel and over-reliance on trickable technology. But I wonder: does a process that makes all passengers nervous and uncomfortable make it fundamentally easier for people with malicious intent to slip through?


As part of my ongoing research on improving MBTA usability, I’ve been listening to the chatter between MBTA dispatchers, bus drivers, train operators, station managers, and other staff. Shortly before Christmas, toward the end of evening rush hour, I heard an exchange that that went like this:

We have an incident of an unattended package that has been sighted on the east platform of [station name].

About half a minute later, I heard the following reply:

A passenger forgot her package. She’s on her way back to the platform to retrieve it now. Please just let her get her bag.

In Gladwell’s parlance, I felt that I had ample opportunity to “thin slice” the conversation. The first speaker was officious, with a pseudo-military quality that verged on pompous. He used the passive voice and awkward, redundant, and jargon-y terminology.

The second speaker was clearly fed up with the first speaker. I had the distinct impression it wasn’t the first such conversation. The tone of voice — and the word “please” — suggested that the speaker thought it was unlikely that the woman would be allowed to get her bag back without additional hassle.

The second speaker had a good opportunity to make a realistic assessment of how likely the passenger was to pose a terrorist threat. The second speaker implied face-to-face contact with the passenger — who was probably cramming in last-minute shopping on the way home from work, and carrying one package too many. The first speaker was making decisions on the basis of a blurry picture on a monitor and (I suspect) a procedural manual revised in the wake of September 2001.

I’ve spent much of my career working on training products for state and federal agencies, and I think it’s likely that the new rule book specifies that any unattended package must got through the full threat evaluation procedure, no matter what the station manager recommends. After all, there’s always a chance that the station manager has somehow been coerced into making a false statement.

The problem is, this approach just doesn’t work. Being on high-alert forever is the same as not being on alert at all — people aren’t wired to maintain peak vigilance indefinitely. Procedures that are excessively cumbersome will eventually be disregarded. And while I understand that discounting the judgment of those closest to a potential threat situation may protect the MBTA from liability, I’m far from convinced that it’s the best way to actually increase the overall safety of the system.

Needs More Demons? No. I’m not even going to make a corny joke about devils in details.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

9 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell: Blink

  1. Interesting! I always appreciate trusted friends thinking and synthesizing stuff so I don’t have to. But, in the absence of any research or reflection, I could have told you that your menu/restaurant experiences aren’t just you-being-weird. At the minimum they are you-and-me-being-weird, as my behavior at standard vs. vegetarian or seafood restaurants is effectively identical to yours.

    Also, I feel anxious about decision-making when the entire menu is available to me. Prefering to avoid such anxiety (many years ago I moved from DC to Spartanburg, SC largely because there was too much to do in DC), I stupidly find myself avoiding the very restaurants that cater to me and offer me the widest range of yummy eating experiences.

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  2. Fascinating. Maybe we should be given a grant to study how Meyers-Briggs personality inventories — especially the perceiving/judging axis — correlates with vegetarianism and other dietary choices that can curtail dining options.

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  3. I think, fairly straightforwardly, that what Americans look for in a President has changed. In other words, just as outmoded styles of clothing once looked incredibly fashionable, the old-school “dignity and intelligence” model of presidentialness has yielded to something else. What is it? I don’t know: much talk about “who people would rather have a beer with” – which I suppose is a soft version of “values”: who seems to be the kind of guy you’d like, or something. But I still don’t get it, since Bush has seemed smarmy, clueless, and petulant ever since I’ve seen him, and I don’t think that’s only because I despise his politics. (Give me time, and I could probably think of a right-wing swine that at least looks reasonably intelligent…)

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  4. Goldwater? McCain? I disagree with those men on any number of points, but I don’t think they’re stupid.

    I think you’re on to something here, 2fs. In fact, in the past few days, I’ve convinced myself that there’s been a large-scale swing in the public consciousness over the past several decades from prizing intelligence to mistrusting it. Maybe The Bomb is to blame.

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  5. I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s cyclical. The schism between plain-talking country folk vs. city slickers in American presidential politics is at least as old as Andrew Jackson.

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  6. Oh, totally. Lately I’ve been reading about the Reconstruction (which my U.S. History classes totally glossed over; I had no idea how bad it was) and we watched a documentary set in the Nixon years. Both reinforce my sense that, however badly divided the country is now, it’s weathered much worse.

    Also, I think that late 20th/21st century technology makes it much easier for the plain talking country folk to make their preferences known in ways that shape society and policy. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, either — if democracy is just for the privileged, then it’s not democracy.

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  7. I voted for George W. Bush–twice yet–and chose him over Gore & Kerry for reasons more important to me than appearance. I listen to the candidates and base my voting decison on the candidates’ records, opinions, promises and character.

    Remember that the popular vote was split fairly evenly in both of those elections. About as many people in each election saw Gore & Kerry as the preferred candidate over Bush. I hope that they based their decisions on something more concrete than appearance.

    Sen. Barack Obama is clearly being groomed for a presidential run, and it is easy to see how his actions and interviews are carefully crafted to make him seem “presidential.” He follows the mold of Bush, Kerry and every other top political candidate–rarely do they sway from the formula that they perceive will win them votes.

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  8. Tom, I accept the fact that intelligent, reasonable, and informed people make different decisions than I do, and I’m not implying that everybody who votes differently from me does so on the basis of superficial criteria. But some of the people who vote (for any party/candidate) do so for superficial reasons. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s not realistic to pretend otherwise.

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  9. After all, there’s always a chance that the station manager has somehow been coerced into making a false statement.
    If that’s the case, he should just be sure to add that he’s in a flank two position — repeat, in a flank two position. (Sorry, that won’t make any sense to those of you not watching 24…)

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