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Malcolm Gladwell

I hope you'll pardon me while I rant for a minute. New Yorker writer  Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out, BLINK, that has become the talk of the town, even prompting one reviewer -- Farhad Manjoo of Salon -- to state that, "You won't find a reader who doesn't at least like Gladwell" and "There's just no arguing with Gladwell."

I'd like to know what planet Mr. Manjoo is living on; Gladwell's work ALWAYS makes people want to argue. As I've written here before, his writing follows a simple formula: put forth a counterintuitive argument, then cleverly select points that advance this claim while ignoring and obscuring those that don't.

I haven't read the book in question, so you can take this all with a grain of salt, but the premise alone is preposterous: Gladwell claims that "rapid cognition"--"the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye"--is underappreciated. As Gladwell writes, "I think the Rapid Cognition Model needs to be taken far more seriously--that it's smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit for."

Oh, really? What about the advertising industry, which does nothing if not appreciate humanity's ability to make unconscious, split-second decisions (and profit from them). Every year, marketers pour billions of dollars into researching and exploiting "blink."

What about the recent election of a president who acted on "gut instinct" over a man noted for careful deliberation? What about the widespread assumption that it's important to make a good first impression... or, for that matter, the belief in love at first sight?

Gladwell devotes a chunk of his book to the work of the John Gottman, who videotapes couples and says that within 15 minutes he can tell with 90 percent accuracy whether the couple will be married 15 years later. According to Gladwell, Gottman's abilities illustrate the power of blink. But Gottman's work could just as well illustrate the power of careful, deliberative analysis. I first heard about the Gottman Institute on NPR's This American Life; in that story, Gottman discussed how he acquired his ability to read couples through extensive trial and error. It took him over a decade of watching and analyzing to get to a point where he figured things out quickly. It seems to me that this gets to the heart of the problem with touting blink: at least a solid part of its strength is dependent on the kind of analysis that Gladwell suggests is overrated.

The very reason that Gottman's work interests us in the first place is because it's so unusual, the exception to the rule. The truth is that most of us aren't very good at knowing whether our own relationships will last, let alone those of our peers. Yet Gladwell maintains that the power of blink is democratic, as useful for lay persons as experts. If that's the case, why is the divorce rate for people who fall in love at first sight no better than those who trod a slow-moving path?

It's also really hard to swallow Gladwell's love of blink in light of its role in the social stereotypes that play against the female, dark-skinned, disabled, or physically unattractive among us. Gladwell and his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki debate this point in an enlightening Slate article. )

To make his case, Gladwell discusses the hiring practices of top orchestras. For years, such orchestras, which conducted open auditions, overwhelmingly selected male performers. But in the 1980s, as Gladwell writes, orchestras "started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately -- immediately! -- orchestras started hiring women."

Might this indicate that relying on quick impressions isn't such a good thing? After all, it suggests that committee members who had relied on first impressions were likely to assume a female player wasn't very good. Gladwell's retort: people rely on their biases regardless of how quickly they make a decision. The problem, he suggests, is bias, not the style (or speed) of decision-making. To bolster his point, he sites the overwhelming presence of tall men heading up corporations. Even very deliberate decisions, he points out, reflect bias.

But this reasoning is ridiculous. The fact that reasoned decisions often reflect bias doesn't mean that reasoning can't help minimize it. When you eliminate reasoning and deliberation, you eliminate even the chance of countering biased first impressions.

Gladwell's solution is no solution at all: "We can put up the equivalent of screens. We can find ways of editing out nonessential information." When you consider that we form prejudices based on a person's name, skin color, voice, height, gender, medical history, and appearance, the equivalent of screens would be a soundproof, windowless blackbox.

I'm not saying Gladwell is a bad writer, or that none of his points have merit. I think his skills lie precisely where Farhad Manjoo denies them: in getting readers to argue and discuss. He's also good at weaving engaging narratives. But, for me, his penchant for overselling arguments--and for concealing significant counterpoints--overshadows his obvious talents.

Gladwell's thesis would be more accurate in stating that split-second decision-making isn't worthless -- that it can at times be channeled effectively, and that knowing when to do so is key. But that argument sounds a lot less sexy. At any rate, it wouldn't make for a Malcolm Gladwell book.

::::

The first article of Gladwell's that I remember was his profile of Paco Underhill, which you can read on his website: The Science of Shopping

This article pissed me off so much that I did my own interview with Underhill for the Village Voice (later reprinted in Stay Free!): Shopping Spies: Why is that man staring at me?

Posted by carrie on 02/16/2005 | Permalink

Comments

I couldnt agree more. I bought the book "Blink" on the assumption that it was a good read because it was featured in Time magazine. I really dont understand what it is, but this writer reminds me of a quote that says something about novels not to be held lightly but to be tossed hard. I am on the last few chapters of the book hoping there will be something in it that will change my impression of it. Its still trash. Its like listening to a smarty pants trying to impress a group of other smarty pantsters...to think that Gladwell has become an icon for his writting, makes me wonder if he's using his observations to work for him. Thinly-sliced, the book covers looks and felt nice, and I fell for it.

Posted by: Nelson | Mar 7, 2005 9:00:11 PM

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