Behavior: Jumping to Conclusions

Think fast! Malcolm Gladwell argues that snap decisions can be better than slow, thoughtful ones

  • Vic Braden has a special talent, and it's driving him nuts. Braden, a well-known tennis coach, can tell when a player is about to double-fault before the tennis racket even meets the ball. He doesn't know how; it just comes to him in a flash. One year he watched the tournament at Indian Wells and called 16 out of 17 double faults before they happened. This freaks him out. "What did I see?" Braden wonders. "I would lie in bed thinking, 'How did I do this? I don't know.' It drove me crazy."

    Apparently, it drives Malcolm Gladwell crazy too because he has written a whole book about it titled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown; 277 pages). Gladwell isn't a psychologist or a tennis pro. He's a journalist, a staff writer for the New Yorker, but he likes to dabble in those kinds of intriguing, messily interdisciplinary problems, to which he brings his singularly lucid, clarifying intellect.

    The Tipping Point, Gladwell's first book, was a study of the unexpectedly viral ways that ideas, trends and fads spread through the general population. In Blink Gladwell takes as his subject the snap decision. Why, he wants to know, do intuitive, unconscious, seat-of-the- pants judgments, made in seconds on the basis of very little information, so often turn out better than better-informed, more thoughtful choices?

    Gladwell concedes defeat at the outset: what goes on in the locked magician's trunk of the unconscious will always be a mystery. But we can keep careful track of what goes into the box and what comes out of it. The unconscious mind is astonishingly good at filtering out superfluous data and seizing on essential truth, we learn, but too much time or information can confuse and blind it. And the unconscious mind can be trained. The psychologist John Gottman can watch a 15-minute videotape of a husband and wife about whom he knows nothing and predict with 90% accuracy whether they will still be married in 15 years. Gladwell, with his infernal gift for coining buzzwords, calls the rapid analysis performed by the unconscious mind "thin slicing."

    Gladwell's real genius is as a storyteller. He's like an omniscient, many-armed Hindu god of anecdotes: he plucks them from every imaginable field of human endeavor. The art historian who can instantly spot a forgery that fooled a battery of scientific tests but can't explain why. The ornithologist can identify at 200 yards an exotic bird he's never seen in flight before. The psychologist who has catalogued the 10,000 expressions of which the human face is capable. Gladwell hangs with superstar car salesmen and emergency-room cardiologists, badass battlefield commanders and improv-comedy troupes. He even talks to speed daters. Says a disappointed woman, memorably, about a roomful of unsuccessful suitors: "They lost me at hello."

    In fact, Gladwell throws so many anecdotes at us in Blink, from so many directions, that sometimes it's a little hard to be certain what they prove. Sure, producer Brian Grazer knew right away that Tom Hanks had star potential when he auditioned for Splash. But is that kind of judgment really analogous to the split-second decision-making process of a Marine in a war game? Or of the New York City policemen who decided, incorrectly, that immigrant Amadou Diallo was holding a gun and not his wallet?

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