Book examines art of intuition

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005

 

  Author Malcolm Gladwell poses for a portrait in his apartment in New York Jan. 6, 2005. Gladwell's new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," is a study of small things with great consequences, in this case snap decisions that can prove uncannily correct or tragically wrong. AP photo/Joe Tabacca

Author Malcolm Gladwell poses for a portrait in his apartment in New York Jan. 6, 2005. Gladwell's new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," is a study of small things with great consequences, in this case snap decisions that can prove uncannily correct or tragically wrong.

AP photo/Joe Tabacca

NEW YORK — Malcolm Gladwell, whose best seller ''The Tipping Point'' explored how minor events can lead to momentous changes, got the idea for his next project simply by letting his hair grow long.

''I started getting speeding tickets for the first time in my life and getting pulled aside for security at airports,'' recalls the 41-year-old Gladwell, who also cites a time a couple of years ago when New York police stopped and questioned him because he supposedly resembled a rape suspect — a man taller, heavier and 15 years younger than the author.

''I decided at that point that I wanted to write a book about first impressions,'' says Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

His new work, ''Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,'' has just been published by Little, Brown & Co.

Like ''The Tipping Point,'' Gladwell's current book is a study of small things with great consequences, in this case snap decisions that can prove uncannily correct or tragically wrong. In ''Blink,'' which has a first printing of 250,000, Gladwell details the importance of instincts in a wide range of professions.

''I wanted to get people thinking about how we make decisions,'' says Gladwell, whose previous book has 800,000 copies in print and has been cited by everybody from former President Clinton to Starbucks Chair Howard Schultz. ''We think what's on the surface is all we need to know when, in fact, there's so much going on under the surface that we don't know about.''

In the book's introduction, Gladwell cites a debate from the art world in the 1980s: The authenticity of a marble statue of a nude male youth, or ''kouros,'' that supposedly dated back to ancient Greece.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles had agreed to purchase the kouros after an extensive investigation. Stanley V. Margolis, a geologist from the University of California at Davis, concluded that the statue was at least hundreds, if not thousands of years old, based on the presence of calcite, a mineral that could only exist after a centuries-long aging process.

But some had doubts. Federico Zeri, one of the museum's trustees, looked at the kouros and immediately sensed something wrong, something about the statue's fingernails. Evelyn Harrison, an expert on Greek culture, was unsettled, but couldn't say why. Thomas Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, took a look and the first word that came into his head was ''fresh,'' as in new.

The Getty subsequently discovered that documents vouching for the kouros were fake and that the calcite could have been produced in a couple of months. While the statue remains in the museum's permanent collection, the catalog includes a cautionary notation about its origins: ''About 530 B.C., or modern forgery.''

The experts who had felt an ''intuitive repulsion,'' as one detractor called it, had good reason.

''In the first two seconds of looking — in a single glance,'' Gladwell writes, ''they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.''

As Gladwell notes, people make impulsive judgments all the time: whether to buy a particular shirt, whether to accept or turn down a date, whether to keep driving as the traffic light changes from green to red.

The art of thinking quickly is known among psychologists as ''thin-slicing,'' in which the mind processes a great deal of information in a short time. What makes some of us better ''thin slicers'' than others? A major reason, Gladwell says, is experience — the more you know coming into a situation, the more likely you can make a fast and reasoned judgment. As an artist or athlete might say, the more you practice, the better you improvise.

''Spontaneity is an important concept in the book,'' Gladwell says. ''You can be spontaneous on the basketball court — pass, dribble, shoot — but that comes about after an enormous amount of practice and discipline. To me, this suggests that spontaneity and structure are two sides of the same coin.''

A leading ''thin slicer'' cited by Gladwell is John Gottman, an author and psychologist who has proved remarkably accurate in predicting how long marriages will last. Since the 1980s, Gottman has interviewed thousands of couples and determined that a handful of perceived characteristics, especially ''disgust'' and ''contempt,'' are reliable signs of future trouble.

By watching a husband and wife talk for an hour, Gottman can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether they will be together in 15 years. Give him 15 minutes and Gottman's accuracy is 90 percent.

''By virtue of sifting and sorting and analyzing, he's gotten to the point where he can sit down in a restaurant and tell whether a couple is going to make it or not. And that's an elaborate model for what goes on all the time,'' Gladwell says.

''Over the course of our lives, we make judgments over and over again and we learn from them. One of the reasons that dating is terrifying when we're 14 or 15 is that we're terrible at reading people. We don't know anything. But eventually we get better at it — hopefully.''

Experience teaches us to look past stereotypes and surface characteristics, whether seeing through the charms of a ''handsome stranger'' or not allowing biases of race or gender to distort our judgment.

Gladwell looks to the classical music world for a story of innovation triumphing over prejudice. For centuries, women were believed inferior performers to men. They were smaller, weaker, less resilient. Rainer Kuchl, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, once observed that without opening his eyes he could tell the difference between a male violinist and a female violinist.

But a lot has changed over the past few decades. Orchestras formed unions and won improvements in health benefits and job protection. Alleging that conductors played favorites, musicians demanded ''blind'' auditions, for which performers were identified only by number and played behind a screen.

In the past 30 years, Gladwell writes, the number of women playing in U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold. A tuba player for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Herb Weksleblatt, told Gladwell about running the opera's first blind audition, in the mid-1960s. Four violinists were sought and all four applicants picked by Weksleblatt were women.

''Up until that point, we had maybe three women in the whole orchestra,'' Weksleblatt explained. ''I remember that after it was announced that the four women had won, one guy was absolutely furious with me. He said, 'You're going to be remembered as the ... (man) who brought women into this orchestra.'''



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