I just finished with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It raises some interesting points, and is certainly an entertaining enough read, but I have to say it’s got my logic gland a little bit inflamed.
Blink deals with the processes that take place in our minds before we’re aware we’ve thought about them (i.e. first impressions). He discusses job interviews, market research, and police (over)reactions, among other things. I’d like to report the take-away message of it all, but to be honest I’m kind of confused what it was supposed to be.
Half the time Gladwell is describes how our first impressions are more correct than we give them credit for, and half the time that they’re terribly, terribly wrong. That’s fine, but without outlining where the distinction lies, it doesn’t help anyone better understand how they might change their thinking on first impressions. The only point that is put forward is that snap judgements are correct if you’re an expert and trained to make objective evaluations, and wrong if you’re a non-expert. Which does all of us non-experts a lot of good.
As an example, Gladwell explains how meticulous analysis of facial expressions, down to specific muscle movements, can carry crucial clues to the person’s intentions. This comes from research by Paul Ekman (Tim Roth on Lie to Me) and the meticulous system he developed, which involves recording facial expressions and breaking down expressions frame-by-frame, giving each one particular, inaccessible codenames.
Following this praise for scrutinizing small details to pick out the truth is a complete rebuttal of this methodology. Gladwell goes through how over-analysis of data cost “Blue Team” in the American Army’s Millennium Challenge 2002 war-game. They chose to carefully scrutinize their data, give everything inaccessible acronyms, and break everything down into categories. And this time, that was a bad thing.
My problem with Gladwell’s writing is the same as that recently voiced by Steven Pinker, in response to Gladwell’s most recent book, What the Dog Saw – And Other Adventures. He calls it Gladwell’s Igon value problem, after a particularly damning error (Eigen value, a term any mathematician knows, was the term Gladwell meant to use). Talking about What the Dog Saw, Pinker writes:
The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you’ll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.
Gladwell doesn’t get statistics. This prompted Pinker’s response for What the Dog Saw, and was the case in his earlier writings as well. While one scientist’s views, a remarkable event, or a business success story may make for interesting discussion points, it is never the be all and end all. For every example of failed market research, how many times has it been successful? For every time experts identify a forgery, how often are they fooled? A single story makes for a good anecdote, but it is not convincing that it is representative of a phenomenon. The stories he writes on are, after all, remarkable in some way, or else they wouldn’t be worth publishing.
Perhaps most frustrating was his coining of the term “temporary autism” to refer to the lack of comprehension we have of fine details in the first rapid moments of experiencing a novel situation, person, or object. I’ll try to ignore how offensive this is to those afflicted with autism and their loved ones, but seriously, I don’t complain of momentary paraplegia whenever my leg falls asleep. That’s not cool.
Bad, Gladwell, bad!
“Temporary autism” is supposed to represent that we cannot comprehend every detail of a situation and make judgements based on only our (often misled) first impressions. He describes how we need to avoid falling into that trap where the rest of our cognitive processes supposedly shut down. I think he takes this completely the wrong way. People don’t fall into a pathological state (which, if true could be extremely legally problematic) whenever they don’t have enough information. Instead, they operate based on whatever information they have, and then once a complete picture is available, full reasoning and such can kick in. To call everyone potentially irrational and unemotional is pretty damn misanthropic.
Okay, that’s enough for now. I still plan on reading Outliers and What the Dog Saw, but needed to vent about Blink for now. If I have to say one thing, it’s take your Gladwell with a grain of salt.
p.s. If you’ve read Gladwell before (and maybe even if you haven’t), you should read this essay: I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell. Its funny, and helped ease some of my frustrations about this book.
Oh, and here’s Steven Pinker’s Review:
New York Times: Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective