Malcolm Gladwell Comes to Town, Believing as Strongly as Ever in “the Power of a Situation.” You Can Thin-Slice. Or Tip the Point. But He Wants You to Pay Attention

Real estate salespeople hate the sight of me. Well, maybe not all of them. Just the ones who have actually arranged a purchase for Sherry and me.

The problem is my tendency to make a decision on a house’s unsuitability within a couple of seconds of getting anywhere near it. Bippa, bippa—and there I am insisting that we move on to the next candidate before the poor salesperson has even gotten the car door open at the location of the current one.

Perhaps my ability to absorb the appeal of a property to me in a blink of an eye or a couple of heartbeats is a consequence of having lived in—count ‘em—36 houses in my lifetime. (Chalk it up to a. being the son of a near-itinerant preacher b. at one time, being a journalist moving his family from one $5 a week raise to another and/or c. having a hungry itch to see if the grass was actually greener somewhere else.)

Whatever the reason(s), you can say that I’m a “thin slice” thinker when it comes to knowing whether a house might prove suitable for me. And you can add that I’m not very susceptible to the “Warren Harding Effect”—falling for a pretty face (façade) that is hiding, say, foundation problems. On the other hand, when it comes to a shiny, curvaceous set of wheels, you would be correct to say that I’m highly susceptible to “the dark side of blink” or to being “mind blind,” when it comes to buying an automobile.

Your own “thin slice” detector may have sounded the moment I said “thin slice,” and you immediately knew that I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. I have, again—and will raise you one better. Gladwell came to town this week. He delivered one of his $40,000-a-pop speeches at The Gaylord Texan (about as ritzy a conference center as we can proffer in North Texas) to a business audience each of whom had paid $2,000 to attend a confab on outsourcing.

And once again, I was reminded that you either love Gladwell’s two counterintuitive best-sellers or, conversely, the mere mention of them may cause your eyes to roll. (Legal scholar Richard Posner scathingly damned Blink in a New Republic review, calling it banal and contradictory.)

Gladwell’s first book success was, of course, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, published in 2000. And then, 27 months ago, Blink followed (and is coming out in paperback on April 1). Both tomes resulted, or so Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker, told one interviewer, from his view that “people are experience rich and theory poor.” Gladwell seeks to buttress the “theory” part and does so by relating theories about how the world works—especially the mental world—to people’s experiences. He does so with great enthusiasm. With a keen eye for finding my-gosh!-type anecdotes with real-life O’Henry-type surprises at the end. And with a knack for making you think that knowing what he knows about how the world works will give you an edge on bring new order to the chaos of everyday life.

I’m a Gladwell admirer. I like the way he whets your appetite for looking at, and for taking steps to do, things differently. I especially like the way he shows us how small, butterfly-wing-flapping-like events can grow into mainstream trends (that’s Tipping Point). And how people can often make very good, very fast judgments based on a paucity of information (that’s Blink). On that note, here’s a quick review of Things Gladwell whether or not you’ve read his books:

• In The Tipping Point, Gladwell took an important cue from Nobel-Prize winner Thomas Schelling (who first used the term “tipping point” to refer to the actual moment that white flight will develop in a neighborhood when blacks begin moving in) and crafted a book about how to make big changes happen. He said “social epidemics” (which, on the whole, he speaks of approvingly) proliferate in the right contexts and when assisted by the right influentials. Businesspeople especially have been attracted to his ideas on “connectors” (people who are in touch with a lot of different categories of people), “mavens” (experts in a field) and “salesmen” (people who can close a deal). A key point: successful changes most often result in the presence of “a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.”

Blink is about rapid cognition. About what happens in the first couple of seconds upon meeting someone or (in my personal example above) seeing a house for the first time or reading a few sentences in a book you’ve never seen before. The mind, notes Gladwell, often leaps to a conclusion. Some would call it an “intuitive” leap, but he doesn’t, reserving intuition for things emotional. (In fact, the word “intuitive” doesn’t appear anywhere in his book.) Gladwell believes “snap judgments” are entirely rational. “It’s [still] thinking, he writes on his Web site, “just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’”

• Gladwell espouses “thin slicing,” parsing down information into its essentials and paying close attention to that. The idea isn’t original. In fact, Gladwell probably borrowed it from psychologist Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious). (And both Wilson and Gladwell owe an intellectual debt to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and his 80/20 rule or law of the vital few.) Gladwell believes the brain often makes good decisions with the thinnest information. He writes, “I think it’s time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments. I think that if we did, it would change the way wars are fought, the kind of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are treated, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted and on and on—and if you combine all those little changes together you end up with a different and happier world.”

• Fast decisions are often better than drawn-out ones, Gladwell argues, despite what we often hear as children and adults: Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. But even if more time and data are desirable, high-stakes decisions may have to be made when information is uncertain or absent. In emergency rooms. On the battlefield. At the scene of a fire or a hostage situation. In a business crisis. In his appearance this morning in Grapevine, Tex., he argued that the organization most likely to succeed is the one whose leaders understand that they are going to make mistakes in such circumstances and go ahead and make decisions, even if they are wrong. And then their leaders quickly adjust to circumstances, correct things and get better, so as to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Rachel Donadio profiled Gladwell in The New York Times, and I thought she put her finger on some key essences about this 43-year-old Canadian with the trademark curly hair:

“Gladwell offers optimism through demystification: to understand how things work is to have control over them. Or if you can’t understand the complexities of today’s world, you may still be able to make profitable use of them…[That], too, is part of the success of Gladwell’s success: pragmatism over ideology, optimism over pessimism, colorful human-interest anecdotes over gray shade of data.” She said Gladwell told her: “To be someone who does not believe in the power of the situation is to be defeatist about the world. And that I can’t abide.”

He hasn’t, and the benefit accrues to his readers.

Book No. 1 is available here: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Book No. 2 here: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Rachel Donadio’s profile can be read here: The Gladwell Effect

Read his commentaries here: Gladwell’s Blog

Excerpts from Blink are here:
The Second Mind
Why do we love tall men?
The mysteries of mind-reading

You can test your own “thin slice” biases here: Implicit Association Test

Post from Malcolm Gladwell—
what a nice post! thanks so much. cheers, m.

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