Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In the Blink of an Eye

What do these have in common:

- Male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are as a group 3 inches taller than the average American male.

- Two-officer police cars provide no more safety to the officers than one-officer cars – and 2-officer teams are more likely to have complaints filed against them than an officer on his own.

- There are about 3,000 different meaningful facial expressions.

- There are really only 4 factors that are meaningful to an ER doctor in assessing a patient with chest pain for a heart attack.

- Since audition screens were introduced 30 years ago, the number of women in the top US orchestras has increased five-fold.

Answer: These are all examples discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book blink The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell is probably better known for his book The Tipping Point. If the latter can be said to have dealt with the external, then blink is about the internal – what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing” or the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. It’s the “unconscious” part that makes this book so frightening.

Gladwell has set himself 3 tasks: to convince us that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately”; to help us determine when we can trust our instincts and when we should be wary of them; and thirdly, to convince us that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.”

One of the most shocking and memorable examples to which Gladwell returns often is an actual war game staged by the Pentagon in August 2002 called Millennium Challenge ’02. It makes the subsequent events in Iraq even more understandable and more tragic. The premise of the game is that a rogue military commander has broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf and is threatening to engulf the entire region in war. This commander, virulently anti-American, has a considerable power base from strong religious and ethnic loyalties and is harboring and sponsoring four different terrorist organizations. Sound familiar? If you read nothing else, read Chapter Four – and weep for what was lost.

There are also explanations for the killing of Amadou Diallo and the beating of Rodney King that you probably didn’t read in the media of the time – at least I didn’t.

I was surprised by the ending of the book – it seemed so abrupt. I was still waiting for the “how to”. Gladwell convinced me that there are subtle forces at work altering, undermining and biasing my unconscious; but I am less confident about my ability to control those forces.

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