In A Flash You Just Know


The Power of Thinking

Without Thinking

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown -- 277pp -- $25.95

When they learn that the author of The Tipping Point has a new book, many people will make a snap decision to buy it. They may recall Malcolm Gladwell's first effort, with its stimulating explanation of how ideas and trends can turn into "social epidemics." Readers may also know Gladwell's name from his wide-ranging articles in The New Yorker. Such impulse reactions and other instant appraisals come under Gladwell's microscope in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The book is concise and provocative, although you may find it tough to glean lessons on how to improve your own hasty judgments.

On-the-spot decision makers, Gladwell shows us, can be astonishingly insightful. For example, he tells of art experts who examine a purported 6th century B.C. Greek kouros statue and instinctively know it's a fake. There's the retired Marine who, in a 2002 war game, uses a rogue commander's seat-of-the-pants instinct against process-obsessed officials and succeeds in destroying 16 ships. Gladwell also introduces us to a psychologist who listens to a couple's casual conversation and can tell in minutes that they are probably headed for divorce.

The secret of such abilities, the author says, lies in "thin-slicing," or instantly homing in on a few salient details. For the psychologist, it comes down to a question of contempt: If even one partner displays it toward the other, the marriage is in trouble. Another prescient snap-judge is legendary tennis coach Vic Braden, who can tell before the racket hits the ball if a player is about to double-fault. Braden's predictions, even when they involve athletes he has never met, demonstrate an uncanny accuracy -- yet the coach can't explain why. Of course, he has the benefit of a lifetime's immersion in tennis, which has given him insights he may not even recognize. The same gut instinct even applies to more amateur pursuits such as speed dating, in which singles give a thumbs up or down on potential mates in a matter of minutes. Strangers instantly know who attracts them, even if they can't articulate what they're looking for.

Still, not all instant assessments are spot on. The dark side of "thinking without thinking" commands a great deal of the author's attention. He points out that there are times when snap decisions can go horribly wrong. One disastrous example was the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. After four undercover cops spotted the Guinean immigrant street peddler outside his apartment taking in some fresh air, they shot him 41 times. His race, limited English, location in a crime-ridden neighborhood, and somewhat panicked reaction to having burly men approach him at midnight led the cops to a series of misjudgments. The police did engage in thin-slicing, but they focused on misleading signals, in part, critics say, because of racial prejudice.

Certainly, unconscious bias plays a major role in snap judgments. It's why tall people consistently earn more and rise higher in organizations. It's why orchestras rarely gave key chairs to women until conductors began holding auditions behind partitions. And, Gladwell asserts, it's why Warren G. Harding was elected President when his lack of intelligence and experience would seemingly have disqualified him for the job. Harding, with his booming voice and classic good looks, simply appeared Presidential. "As he grew older, he grew more and more irresistibly distinguished-looking," Gladwell writes. Yet Harding proved to be one of the worst U.S. Presidents. Gladwell challenges us to reflect on our own impulses, using several exercises that illustrate how people unconsciously associate certain attributes with physical characteristics. But since many of these tests involve race and gender, areas in which bias is well-documented, the results may not surprise too many readers.

A more enlightening example involves the now-legendary failure of New Coke. In a series of blind taste tests, old Coke's poor showing led the company to launch a product that was closer in taste to the sweeter Pepsi (PEP ). Coca-Cola (KO ) executives had assumed that consumers' snap decisions in taste tests signaled a lasting preference for Pepsi. They failed to reflect that consumers don't stop drinking after one sip, and that an initially appealing sweetness can grow cloying over the course of a whole can. More important, people do not drink soda blind, and many fans had gravitated to the old Coke for its image and brand. In sum, old Coke's appeal depended on far more than its initial taste.

These anecdotes are absorbing, but the lesson Gladwell intends us to draw from them is vague. Those who can filter out the noise of superficial physical characteristics or even their own wishful thinking, he suggests, may be able to make valid choices almost without thought. Otherwise, they could make serious, sometimes fatal, mistakes. Blink may leave readers pausing before each decision and then second-guessing every pause.

By Diane Brady

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