A Backwards Glance at Gladwell

Four years ago, I reviewed Blink for the Post. Here’s how it started:

Four years ago, I reviewed Blink for the Post. Here’s how it started:

When I opened the package containing the review copy of Blink, my first thought was, “Oh cripes, another monster seller from Malcolm Gladwell.” I reached this snap judgment on the basis of four shards of information. First, Gladwell is one of the most celebrated feature writers at The New Yorker. His previous book, The Tipping Point, has sold more than 800,000 copies. This new book has a very catchy title, and even the roughbound uncorrected proofs are absolutely gorgeous to look at.

In literally judging this book by its cover, I was engaging in what Gladwell calls “rapid cognition.” Most of us assume that the essence of sound decision-making resides in rational deliberation, based on the explicit evaluation of as much information as possible.

For example, when we go see our doctor about some ailment or another, we want to be poked, prodded and tested, and if we still aren’t satisfied we ask for more tests or a second opinion. We would be rather suspicious if the doctor took one look and said, “Oh, you have cancer” or “Go home, you’re fine.”

What Gladwell is pushing in this book is the idea that rapid cognition is not always a poor method of making a decision. There are times, he says, when first impressions are an effective mechanism for making sense of the world. Based on these “thin slices” of experience, our subconscious can often do a better job than more considered deliberation in arriving at the truth of a situation.

The argument unfolds according to the formula that has fuelled Gladwell’s New Yorker pieces for years. He begins by describing, in his famously transparent prose, a succession of disparate and rather mundane events or activities, then shows how there is a common body of scientific research that links them. In this way, Gladwell serves as a sort of journalistic middleman, brokering between the seemingly alien worlds of the academic journal and the daily newspaper.

In Blink, he shows how the “theory of thin slices” applies to fields such as marital counselling, the authentication of rare art and guerrilla warfare. Yet Gladwell is not content with only explaining the world, he wants to change it. He thinks that a proper understanding of the circumstances under which snap judgments can be effective, and those under which it can lead us astray, can help us improve our collective decision-making skills. One of the most impressive parts of the book is the discussion of how the switch to a simple four-factor algorithm has led to substantial improvements in the diagnosis of chest pain at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. It is an entirely convincing illustration of the power of thin slicing.

Not all of Blink is this successful. The story designed as the centrepiece of the book is the case of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who, in 1999, was shot 41 times by New York police who mistook a terrified black man, reaching for his wallet, for an armed criminal. Gladwell sets the table for the discussion with a lengthy exposition of Paul Ekman’s famous work on the physiognomy of emotions and how it relates to the condition of autism.

The idea is that because someone’s face gives us direct access to their thoughts and feelings, face-reading is therefore a form of mind-reading. According to Gladwell, what autistics lack is the common ability to “mind read” by interpreting people’s emotional states. Because they are not able to put themselves into someone else’s mind, autistics see a face as nothing special, no different from any other inanimate object. They are effectively “mindblind.” This is where Gladwell brings out his showstopping claim: What if autism were an occasional condition? Could “temporary autism” help explain why people — like the cops who shot Amadou Diallo — occasionally make catastrophic mistakes in judgment, particularly when under stress or highly aroused?

This is a bizarre leap. As Gladwell has already gone to great lengths to establish, what happened was not that the police stopped interpreting the actions of Amadou Diallo, it was that they misinterpreted his actions.

This is not a small point, it is the difference between misunderstanding a person’s intentions, on the one hand, and treating him as an object without intentions at all, on the other. Being wrong about what someone is up to does not make you temporarily autistic.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it gets at the central problem with much of Gladwell’s writing. When he turns from journalist to theorist, the broker becomes a bit of a bluffer. In his quest to make the cool connection or to coin the next catchprase, he stretches the canvas of argument over an increasingly rickety frame. It might look impressive, but don’t poke it too hard — it may all fall apart.

But this book-reviewing shtick might be just a bit of pointless thick-slicing that misses the essential point. Thanks to The Tipping Point, Gladwell earns US$40,000 per lecture, and the business community is already slavering over the phrase “temporary autism.” The book is already a bestseller on Amazon. The lesson, of course, is that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover