Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Brief Encounter with Malcolm Gladwell and "Blink"

On Monday evening, Malcolm Gladwell and his book-signing cavalcade rolled into Cambridge. Before the best-selling author signed copies of his latest hit, Blink, he spoke briefly and took questions from the audience that overflowed the auditorium of First Parish Church in Harvard Square.

As Gladwell strode to the small temporary podium that had been set up just below the imposing and historic pulpit, I had the following impious thoughts:

"With that balding, unkempt Afro, he looks like the first runner-up in an Art Garfunkel look-alike contest! What a remarkable resemblance to the picture on the album jacket of 'Fate for Breakfast'!"

I recovered from my brief reverie in time to hear Gladwell, standing at the mini-pulpit, begin to proclaim the Gospel of Rapid Cognition. In a very charming and disarming self-deprecating style, the Canadian-born journalist recounted stories that had been the basis for several chapters of the book. He told of the tragic shooting of Amadou Diallou in New York City as an example of "blink" decisions - thin-slicing rapid cognition - gone wrong. He recounted the watershed study that had led ER doctors at Chicago's Cook County Hospital to learn to use less information to make better diagnoses on patients with acute chest pain. He rhapsodized on the watershed moment in classical musical history when screens became standard equipment for auditions, and women began to win the auditions and to be hired by world class symphony orchestras.

He shared the tale that opens the book - the fascinating saga of the Getty Museum spending months verifying the authenticity of a 6th Century B.C. Greek statue. Satisfied that their painstaking research and analysis by an army of experts had revealed the statue to be the real thing - a rare kouros - the museum wrote a check for $10 million. Not long after the check had cleared, another expert was invited to view the new acquisition. He knew in the "blink" of an eye that he was looking at a fake. Blink examines how we make such rapid cognition determinations. Gladwell also casts an unblinking eye on the question: "Under what circumstances can we and should we rely on the art of 'thin-slicing' to make judgments about people and situations?"

The book is fascinating and relevant. Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, is the only "business book" I re-read on a regular basis. If you have not yet read it, take a break and click on to order it right now! Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, seems to be on track to become another instant classic - and deservedly so. I found myself thinking about mundane decisions and situations in new ways. I offer this book my unequivocal commendation. If you enjoy reading this Blog, I guarantee that you will find Blink worth feasting your eyes on.

As the Q&A session wound down, Gladwell sat to sign books. Pressed for time, I had managed to position myself close to the aisle that would contain the queue of ardent bibliophiles. So, I was second in line when Gladwell began to sign. As the writer autographed the title pages of my well-worn copies of Blink and The Tipping Point, I was able to slip in the question I had been dying to ask him all evening:

"Have you reached a 'Tipping Point' in your own ability to use rapid cognition effectively in your own life?"

Gladwell finished signing my books, looked up at me, blinked, and replied: "Not yet."

Happy reading!

Al Chase

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr Rhino-
A few thoughts about the talk:
At first I thought Blink was the "anti-Moneyball", in that it pointed out the shortcomings of analysis in lieu of "instinct". After hearing Malcolm, it is apparent that the two are coming at the problem of decisionmaking from different but compatible angles:
- Moneyball pointed out the "prejudice" of relying on historical, but otherwise limited/misleading information, and offered alternative analytics, showing that, how and why they were effective.
- Gladwell's point, more general but equally relevent, is that there is a world of data and sociologic influences that drive our decisionmaking at all levels, and that by analyizing the nature of each (external data, natural reflex, trained response, group dymnamics, cultural drivers, etc.) and mapping it to the presumed ideal outcome, one can begine to remove those elements that work against you.

A great book that addresses this is "Influence" by Robert Cialdini.

Finally, a thought: if you're going to recommend books/music/whatever, you should set up an account with Amazon for your site, so people can just click and order. You get a small commission.