Sunday, March 11, 2012

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Source of book: I own this. A gift from my sister, who is also a Gladwell fan.

Gladwell is one of a handful of authors that I will read whenever I see their bylines attached to an online article, regardless of the topic. (Others that come readily to mind are Gregg Easterbrook, Marvin Olasky, Seth Stevenson, Emily Yoffe, and the late Christopher Hitchens.) While his work is usually well thought out and researched, I think there is a more important facet that always draws me in. Gladwell is, above all else, a great story teller. Whether in the opening paragraph of an essay, or in the first chapter of his longer works, there is always a fascinating and well told story. 

As I noted in my review of Outliers, Gladwell can be classified as a writer in the “popular sociology” field. While he does examine the research, and cites the statistics and studies he quotes, he writes to an average reader, not the expert. For this reason, I enjoy the storytelling more than his conclusions, which can seem a little too neatly packaged for the real world. (Outliers suffers from this fault more than Blink, because Gladwell proposes sweeping social engineering, rather than personal change.)

The central idea of this book is the examination of how we make decisions. As humans, we appear to use two basic methods. In some cases, given enough time and information, we reason things out, carefully drawing a conclusion from our knowledge. In other cases, we make a snap decision intuitively. How these two interact, and how we can utilize the best both skills is a fascinating topic, and Gladwell manages to find the perfect anecdotes to illuminate it.

To begin with, Gladwell introduces what he calls “thin slicing”, wherein we draw conclusions from a small sample size. We do this, for example, when we size up social situations. Most of us can tell within a few moments of entering a social event that two persons dislike each other. Or, as Gladwell points out later in the book, a skilled musician can tell within a few notes whether another musician is legitimate.

Throughout this book, I recognized intersections with two significant areas of my life: law and music.

The first was introduced along with the “thin slice” concept. Gladwell interviewed a researcher who was attempting to gain insight into marital (and similar) relationships. He had couples discuss a source of friction in their relationship while he observed and recorded it. Later, he broke down the words, inflections, and body language into a variety of categories. He then followed the couples for the next fifteen years to see who had stayed together. So far, this sounds like a typical long range study, where a large aggregation of data eventually leads to an insight. More information equals better prediction. Except that this turned out to be wrong. The more categories and the more complexity the researcher introduced, the worse the predictions became.

A different approach succeeded. The decision was made to try to simplify the information by eliminating most of it and focusing on just a couple of important factors. With further refining, the researcher was able to predict with 85 percent accuracy who was going to divorce, despite having seen a mere 15 minutes of interaction. Startlingly, this percentage did not go down much when he reduced the time to 3 minutes.

The entire story is more detailed than this, but one conclusion in particular stood out. The most important indicator that a relationship is doomed is contempt. Once one party shows contempt for the other, the relationship is over. The concept of “contempt” is broader than we usually think. It isn’t necessary to call the other party a bitch: all that is needed is that one party place him or herself on a higher plane than the other. (See endnote for more on this.)

Also on the law side of the spectrum was the similar research attempting to predict whether a doctor would be sued for malpractice. It turned out that the doctor’s skill and competence was irrelevant. It was all about the doctor’s attitude. It was so much about the attitude that they were able to play a short conversation between patient and doctor, with the recording altered so that the actual words were unintelligible, and the result was still predictable based simply on tone of voice.

After establishing some situations in which the intuitive response leads to better results, Gladwell explores the mechanism by which this works. In many cases, this is not easy. The mind makes its judgments, and these judgments remain mysterious. In some cases they are even opposed to rational thought.

Gladwell writes about association tests. I played around with these tests myself at the California Science Center, which was an interesting experience. They test association of ideas using a computer program which records both accuracy and speed. The explanation of the tests is beyond the scope of a book review, but I recommend playing around with the tests, which can be found here:

The upshot of the tests is that our unconscious biases are often in opposition to our beliefs and statements. We may say, for example, that we think short people are as intelligent as tall people, but our snap judgments will show the opposite.

I appreciated that Gladwell noted that being short is as much of a barrier to becoming a CEO as being African-American. (Gladwell is half Jamaican, so this is a real concession on his part.)

The result of this is illustrated by the story of how Warren Harding, perhaps the worst president of all time, was elected on the basis of his looks and voice, rather than ideas or ability. William McAdoo said of him, all too accurately, that his speeches were “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea."

This is where our intuition lets us down. It dwells too near our prejudices. Thus, the inherent issue is how to determine when to rely on instinct and when to slow down and analyze in greater detail.

The problem with the additional information is that it is not always helpful. Again, here this book touches on the law. In an additional research on medical diagnosis, it was discovered that additional information did not increase the likelihood of a correct diagnosis. It did have an effect, however. Those with more information became more convinced and sure that their diagnosis was correct – even if it wasn’t.

How does the law come into all of this? Eyewitness identifications are unreliable. This has been proven time and time again. We simply cannot identify a stranger in a lineup with any degree of accuracy. However, the more time spent viewing and analyzing the lineup, the more time spent focusing on remembering the details, the more certain the identifications become. Even – perhaps especially – the incorrect ones.

Gladwell’s point here is that the irrelevant details need to be eliminated. This is where the more extensive research can help reduce the clutter. In the medical example, the accuracy was increased by removing two categories of facts. One was the facts that were secondary to the key issue. The second was unconscious prejudices. (For example, that men were more likely to be having a heart attack.)

A few more notes will have to suffice. The book is excellent reading for all of the above examples, and many more.

The chapter on advertising and marketing is amazing. The use of three glasses to test Coke and Pepsi, for example, is illuminating.

I also would like to draw a parallel between the chapter on a police shooting gone bad and The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh, which recounts an arrest gone bad that ended with a dead officer here in Kern County. Both show the many things that can go wrong in the space of a couple of seconds, and how both incidents led to the reconsideration of how we handle certain situations – and how to avoid them.

Finally, Gladwell ends his book with a series of stories about music. To those of us who play classical music, the story of Abbie Conant is well known. To those of us who follow employment law, the case of Abbie Conant is also familiar. Conant is a world-class trombone player, who happens to be female. European orchestras are notoriously monolithic – white, and male. The Vienna Philharmonic remained an all-male group until well into the 1990s.

The Munich Philharmonic decided to hold auditions behind a screen, because one of the applicants was related to someone in the orchestra management. When Conant won the audition, the judges were mortified to discover she was female. After multiple attempts to remove her or relegate her to a lesser status, she finally had to take her case to court. She won, and then had to sue again when she was intentionally paid less than her colleagues.

Gladwell tells the story well, although he omits much of the legal details. (Only someone like myself would complain.)

There are additional stories regarding the use of blind auditions, which further his point. When we know of a particular risk of prejudice, the use of a screen or other device to eliminate the prejudicial cues can focus the decision making process on the essentials. He makes an interesting surmise that this same screening process could potentially work to reduce racial bias in criminal trials. I must admit that he has a point – and I suspect many who work in the legal profession would be likewise intrigued. Some people just “look” guilty, whether they are or not.

In any case, this book is thought provoking, full of well-told stories, and one of Gladwell’s best writings.

 Note on “contempt” and relationships:

This hit home for me, because I have the skill of prediction as well. Divorces are a part of my practice, so I see the aftermath of failed relationships on a daily basis. For good or bad, I have noticed that, while I cannot accurately identify a good marriage, I can certainly detect a bad one long before others do – even the couple themselves in some cases. Not only that, but I can usually tell when a marriage will end due to an affair by the husband. How? Contempt. Within the space of a short conversation, it will become apparent that one spouse has contempt for the other. Inevitably, when the object of the contempt finds someone that doesn’t contemn them, the result is predictable.

I will refrain from using anecdotes of my own here, so as to preserve the privacy and feelings of friends and acquaintances. However, there is one of my legal cases that is on point, and is unfortunately typical.

A woman came to my office seeking help in filing a “move-away”. She had a 16 year old daughter who lived with her. She wanted to relocate to another state, to marry a man she met online, and had only seen in person once. Usually, in these cases, the father of the child objects and the kid is put in the middle. In this case, the daughter had informed her mother in no uncertain terms that she wished to stay where she was and finish high school with her friends. She could live with her father, who lived around the corner from her school. Mom was completely, and I mean completely unglued at this prospect. Why shouldn’t her daughter live with her father? “Because he is so selfish, and she will learn to be selfish from him.” Selfish? It turned out that dad liked to hang out with his friends, and ride his motorcycle. Apparently, he should have spent more time at church. (Or, reading between the lines, doing what his ex-wife wanted him to do.) The contempt here was tangible. “My desires are good, yours are selfish.” And the marriage ended. I refused to take the case. Even if I could have held my nose and done what I considered to be a rather immoral thing, this woman had no chance of winning the case. A 16 year old with good grades has a great deal of say in her living arrangements here in California. Thank goodness.

This holds true in other relationships as well. Once one side realizes, “You really think you are better than me,” the relationship is over. It’s just done, and it will probably never come back.

1 comment:

  1. The most interesting part of the post was your p.s. on contempt there at the end.

    This author certainly has interesting hair. ;D

    Those are my deep thoughts here. The read itself sounds interesting but not one I'd likely pick up (at the moment.) Curious to read ABOUT it though.