I see I taste I write Links What?
June 24, 2007


The power of thinking without thinking.
Malcolm Gladwell – ISBN 9780316010665
(author of Tipping Point, previously reviewed.)

This is a particularly fascinating book; better, I think, and most certainly different from Tipping Point.

As the title suggests, he elaborates upon the things we do--in the blink of an eye, so to speak--which are based upon experience rather than thought. He calls those based upon thoughtful consideration paralysis by analysis. As a consequence of too much data we often confuse information with understanding. “The key to good decision making is not knowledge [or data] . . . but understanding.” There are times when haste does not make waste, when snap judgments and first impressions can offer a better means of making sense of the world. Judgment is often better than cautious deliberation. There are times when we demand an explanation when it really isn’t possible.

He reviews the activities of a brilliant General of the Marine Corps charged with leading the “Red Team” (always the adversary of the good guys on the “Blue Team.”) Ostensibly staged as a war game based in the Middle East, he went way outside what was expected by the Blue’s, and walloped them severely. As in an episode of JAG, and Kelsey Grammer’s movie spoof, those in command of the Pentagon demanded that the game be rerun because the Red leader hadn’t “played by the rules” (as if there are rules in war.) That it is precisely what got us into trouble in the Middle East!!!

For example: When you study a chessboard there isn’t anything you can’t see . . . except what the other guy is thinking! “More and more, commanders want to know everything and they get imprisoned by that idea. . . . [But] you can never know everything.” As in Gulliver’s Travels, the big guy gets tied down by the little rules and the little guys run around doing exactly as they wish.

I have had similar experiences in medicine, wherein too much information is brought to bear upon a problem. Confusion, indecision and error result. Frequently the true expert notices not just what is happening, but more importantly what is not! Been there too. Indeed, I was once derisively accused (I was flattered!) by an academic colleague of “being the most right, the most often, with the least amount of knowledge.” I was pleased to emphasize that being right is what matters.

He demonstrates that the true expert at reading body language can often determine things the subject is trying to hide. This section of the book is particularly absorbing. The expression on your face is more than a signal of what’s going in your mind. It is what is going on in your mind, and completely involuntary. “Whenever we experience a basic emotion, that emotion is automatically expressed by the muscles of the face.”

He reviews what is known of autism, noting that such individuals have no insight into themselves or others. To them everything is an object. In times of crisis normal people are programmed to objectify risks. He terms this “temporary autism,” and gives examples of how it works.

A truly brilliant discussion follows, using the Dialo case, in which the NYPD officers shot and killed an innocent black immigrant. He describes what a “heightened awareness of threat” does to the mind, which focuses only on those things necessary for survival and shuts out all other input. It fosters survival, but is dangerous if permitted to apply in situations where it shouldn’t. One can learn to avoid such errant, dangerous behavior.

He then reviews symphony orchestral auditions. In recent years the performer sits behind a screen, forcing the auditors to listen to the performance. Before this was instituted, fewer than 5% of orchestra members were women. (Male musicians just knew that women simply weren’t as good.) Now the distribution is 50/50!

I love his observations in that regard: Before screens, what might we have proposed for women in the musical world?

“I think we would have talked about awareness programs for gender bias, and how to teach female musicians to be more assertive in making the case for their own ability. We would have had long discussions about social discrimination. . . . Our suggestions for change would have been fairly global and long term. . . . [and] at the end of long days of meetings we would have thrown up our hands and said that we would just have to wait until the current generation of [irredeemably bigoted] maestros . . . was replaced by a younger and more open-minded set of conductors.” Instead, the context was examined; screens were put up and the problem was resolved then and there. Philosophy free!

In summary he observes that following the acquisitions of a lifetime of learning we acquire judgment. With the knowledge accrued, and knowing how the mind works, we should then be able to act responsibly. He heartily recommends that we do so.

If we combined all of the little things we know, making appropriate changes based upon knowledge and insight, the world would be different and better. He has a point, and makes it very well.

Posted by respeto at June 24, 2007 10:07 AM