Malcolm Gladwell: Book Reviews

November 8, 2019

After Talking to Strangers, it's time to reread Gladwell's earlier books and add some analysis. First up is: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). Using a similar approach as Strangers, he focuses on stories to describe the subconscious "first two seconds," beginning with a fake kouros bought by the Getty Museum. It was a good fake and fooled the technicians, but the art experts knew something was wrong based on "intuitive revulsion." "The part of our brain that leaps to conclusions like this is called the adaptive uncounscious" (p. 11). The big questions is when to trust (our instincts) and when to be vary based on the first two seconds. 

 

Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices. Patterns based on narrow experience were called "thin slicing," used by John Gottman to determine if marriages would survive. Video recorded every conceivable emotion which were detected in facial expressions. Contempt was the most important sign a marriage was in trouble. Women are more critical, men more likely to stonewall. Personality workup up Big Five Inventory: extraversion, agreeableness (trusting or suspicious), conscientiousness (organized or disorganized), emotional stability (worried or calm), openness to new experiences (independent or conforming) (p. 35). Patton and Napoleon had "coup d'oeil" (power of the glance); also bird identification.

 

Chapter 2: The Locked Door: Snap judgments (Vic Braden on tennis double faults). Priming experiments for unconscious influence, e.g., courteous versus rude. Think smart or dumb before taking GRE. Addicts: what you know versus what you do. "We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for" (p. 69). People are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. 

 

Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error. Harry Daugherty the "Machiavelli of Ohio politics, the classic behind-the-scenes- fixer." He got Harding into Ohio politics because he looked like a Roman senator. He was a dud, his speeches were "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea" (p. 74). This is the dark side of thin slicing, "the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination" (p. 76). Implicit Association Test (IAT), we make connections quickly between pairs of ideas already related in our minds. Tall means big bucks, Fortune 500 CEOs more likely to be tall, etc. 

 

Chapter 4: Paul Van Riper's Big Victory. Van Riper was a retired general assigned to the inferior Red Team in the Millennium Challenge. The Blue Team was trying out high tech intelligence equipment and should have won easily. But Van Riper did not fight as expected and won initial victories. They then changed the rules, allowing the Blue Tam to win and declare victory. Problem was information overload and a system that did not allow for quick adjustments. 

Improv comedy is not random; it requires rules and practice, allowing rapid cognition. Heart attacks in an emergency room. Do not rely on doctor's individual training and gathering extensive (possibly contrary) information. Instead statistics rules were developed by Lee Goldman to predict heart attack. Extra information is worse than useless, it's harmful, confusing the issue. 

Deliberative versus instinctual thinking, frugality matters. 

 

Chapter 5: Kenna's Dilemma. Dick Morris, working for Clinton, applying movie polling to politics. How to find out what people want: ask them directly. Maybe. The Pepsi challenge had people preferring Pepsi to Coke based on a sip (it is sweeter). Coke created New Coke to meet this challenge. Except people hated New Coke because they preferred the longer-term taste of a whole can (sip test versus home use). 20th century marketeer Louis Cheskin showed that packaging is critical to product success, using the example of margarine as a cheaper substitute for butter (call it Imperial with an impressive crown and color it yellow)--"sensation transfer." Key to marketing: manipulate first impressions. Market research is "too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different" (p. 174). ABC market tested "All in the Family" using questionnaires and Program Analyzer (pushed buttons to record impressions while watching show) to poor results; Mary Tyler Moore show also tested a loser. New and different vulnerable to market research. First impressions of experts can be different, because they rely on experience (e.g., Kenna as a singer). Introspection can destroy people's ability to solve insight problems (analyze texture in jams?). Unconscious reactions come out of a "locked room." Experts have experience to decode what lies behind snap judgments. 

 

Chapter 6: Seven Seconds in the Bronx. The shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. Patrolling "hot spots" meant police expected trouble and apparently assumed everyone was a crook. Mistake: Diallo looked suspicious doing nothing). When confronted, he was terrified and fled. It was a horrible accident or  a case of blatant racism. Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman developed "mind reading," studying faces based on common rules based on a taxonomy of facial expressions (used by Gottman and Pixar). Autism causes "mind-blindness," making it near-impossible to read non-verbal cues; a face is just an object. Extreme stress causes similar effects: tunnel vision, can process only limited information, motor skills break down, loss of perspective, then cognitive processing; a good reason to ban high-speed chases--mind blindness. Rapid decision making improves with training and experience.

 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was actually Gladwell's first book (2000). The tipping point according to Gladwell is "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point," where ideas or products spread like viruses. He starts with Hush Puppies and the relatively sudden drop in crime rates in New York City in the 1990's. The idea is contagious behavior, with little causes that have big effects, and change happens rapidly. There is a tipping point for new technology, such as cell phones. 

 

Chapter 1: The Three Rules of Epidemics. Gladwell describes the three rules of epidemics (agents of change): 1) the law of the few (key people with particular gifts); 2) stickiness factor, context that makes a memorable impact; and 3) the power of context, mainly environmental factors. The law of the few suggests the need for a few specific types of people: 1) Connectors who know and influence large numbers of people across many classes and circles; 2) mavens are information specialists who accumulate knowledge and share it with others; and 3) salesmen are charismatic people who persuade others with their negotiation skills. 

 

What caused Baltimore's syphilis epidemic: possibly crack cocaine, budget cuts to clinics, destroying old housing projects (moving high crime areas across the city). 80/20 principle, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the participants. Bystander problem: when people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused (more generally, people are sensitive to their environment).

 

Chapter 2: The Law of the Few. The story of Paul Revere who successfully spread the news that the British were coming ("most famous word of mouth epidemic") because he was a connector. Revere was a link to far-flung revolutionary forces; from Boston he knew exactly who to contact on the way to Lexington. Psychologist Stanley Milgram created an experiment to find out how connected people were, using letters to be forwarded, which was completed on average in 5-6 steps, creating the phrase "six degrees of separation." The point is that a small number of people are linked to everyone else (connectors, who bring the world together). [The best connected actor was Rod Steiger; Kevin Bacon not even close.] Sociologist Mark Granovetter studied connectors related to getting people jobs: it was the "weak ties" that worked, those that occupy a different world. Paul Revere was also a maven, one who accumulates knowledge. Market mavens get the information on deals and want to tell you about it (socially motivated data banks, wanting to solve other people's problems). Salesmen have to skills to persuade people when they are unconvinced, the concept of persuasion: persuasive arguments plus energy, enthusiasm, charm and likability. Nonverbal cues important (e.g., shaking your head). Musicians and good speakers are persuaders (crowds are with them). Senders are good at expressing emotions (measured by Affective Communication Test). 

 

Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor. Sesame Street and Blue's Clues. Good teaching is interactive, so stickiness factor is important; the idea is to make the message memorable. The "golden box" (find and get a free record) was a trigger. To get students to get vaccinations, a map with the health building was included with the times. Sesame Street insight: if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them (they look away when bored; watch when they understand, not when confused). The Distracter is used to get the students to pay attention. Pay attention to structure and format to increase stickiness. Blue's Clues was even more sticky than Sesame Street; idea of repetition--preschoolers search for understanding not novelty. The lesson of stickiness: "there is a simple way to package information to make it irresistible. 

 

Chapter 4: The Power of Context 1. Bernie Goetz, "Subway Vigilante." Epidemic crime problem in NYC in the 1980's, then declined in 1990's. Assumes that epidemics are sensitive to conditions and circumstances: drugs (usage fell), age range (fewer 18-24) [Levitt points to abortions], "broken window theory," Transit Authority cracked down on crime beginning with fare beating (plus checking on outstanding warrants) and improved infrastructure. Guiuliani appointed Bratton police chief, focused on insignificant crimes--as tipping point. Criminal as personality type, insensitive to norms of society. Gladwell says no, it's environment, crime as a result of social injustice, structural economic inequalities, institutional neglect. "Inner states" the result of outer circumstances. Philip Zimbardo and Stanford Prison experiment in 1970's: Guards acted like thugs, prisoners rebelled: situation so powerful it overwhelmed inherent predispositions (p. 154). Hartshorne and May 1920's children honesty experiments. When given answer key to "check answers, results improved, plus others: lots of cheating; smart children cheat less: honesty not a fundamental trait, instead, influenced by the situation (p. 157). Fundamental Attribution error (FAE): people overestimate fundamental character traits and underestimate situation and context. "Character isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits" (p. 163). Good Samaritan: experiment with seminarians: when in a hurry would not stop and help (only 10% stopped and helped; when they had plenty of time, 63%). Environmental tipping points are things we can change; e.g., peer and community influence (more important than family for children). 

 

Chapter 5: The Power of Context 2. Rebecca Wells and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, became successful when reading groups discovered it. Groups behave different than individuals, such as religious groups under charismatic evangelists. Medodism founder John Wesley who traveled around England to form religious societies. Rule of 150; cognitive psychology "channel capacity," like the magic number 7 (phone numbers). Robin Dunbar: brains get bigger to handle larger social group complexities; maximum number about 150. Works for villages or military organizations. Gore Associates, small company ethos opening new shops when hitting 150 employees, doesn't use formal management structure.  

 

Chapter 6: Case Study, Airwalk, tipped based on advertising for epidemic transmission, diffusion model for contagious idea moves through a population. Ryan and Gross hybrid seed study from 1930's: innovators, early adopters, majority, laggards. Visionaries versus pragmatists who make incremental improvements for progress. Risk: opportunity versus waste of money and time; safety nets cn be useful. Connectors, mavens, and salesmen adopt, then are translators of specialized world and translate for the public (e.g., drop extraneous details for clear message). Baltimore free needle exchange worked through connectors (super exchangers). 

 

Chapter 7: Case Study. 

 

 

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