March 02, 2005

BOOKS: Blink, Malcolm Gladwell (2005)

Through a series of well-chosen anecdotes and stories, Gladwell explores the phenomenon he calls "thin-slicing," the ability of some people to make decisions or analyze situations extremely quickly, usually with no conscious awareness of how they're making that decision.

Art experts who look at statues and instantly recognize them as fakes; a tennis coach who knows when a player is about to double-fault; a marriage counselor who can predict with 95% accuracy the success of a marriage based on watching 5 minutes of the couple's interaction -- these are the folks who populate Blink.

Thin-slicing can be learned in some circumstances. John Gottman, the marriage counselor, spent years developing his methods for analyzing the emotional nuances of conversation, and has become so proficient at such analysis that it's second nature to him. Most of his colleagues, on the other hand, still have to carefully take notes over several viewings before coming to the conclusions that Gottman now reaches instinctively.

Gladwell is careful to note that thin-slicing is not always a good thing, and that it can lead to what he calls "the Warren Harding error." Harding, generally considered one of our least distinguished presidents, was elected largely because he looked so presidential -- tall, distinguished, handsome -- and people simply assumed that he must also have all of the other qualities one would desire in a president.

Similarly, the recent increase in the number of women who play in the world's major orchestras has come about only after those orchestras began having auditioners play behind a screen; when the audition panel saw female auditioners, their "knowledge" that women didn't play as well or as forcefully as men caused them to hear the auditions differently.

Gladwell's a terrific writer, with a knack for finding the telling anecdote, or for summing up a novel concept in a simple-to-understand phrase (like "thin-slicing"). Anyone who liked his first book, The Tipping Point, will certainly enjoy this one, too.

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