Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink' offers insights on perception
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Malcolm Gladwell is a science writer, not a rock star. But you'd be forgiven if your first impression is that of the latter.
After all, his new book, "Blink" (Little, Brown), is the No. 1 nonfiction book in the country. His previous book, 2000's "The Tipping Point," sold close to 1 million copies, not bad for a work about the nexus between intelligence, idea testing and the mainstream.
His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, always a glittering platform for writers. He's well paid -- he was given a seven-figure advance for "The Tipping Point," and his corporate talks earn him thousands of dollars -- and when Gladwell goes to places such as California's Silicon Valley to speak, the halls are packed.
And then, of course, there's the hair, a wild spray of Sideshow Bob curls. But that's another story.
"He has achieved the sort of celebrity unknown to most serious writers, and now, with 'Blink,' he's being called a new guru for our age," wrote Farhad Manjoo in the online magazine Salon.
Gladwell, 41, laughs off the comparison, even if he is a little stunned by all the success.
"If I'm a rock star, I'm on an indie label and at a very low level," he chuckles in a phone interview from his home in New York.
But he adds, "It is odd. When you go into writing, it's because you're comfortable with anonymity. The story is always the story, not you. It's certainly not anything I anticipated."
Instinct is 'gift of experience'
At the heart of "Blink" is the idea that snap judgments -- even apparently instinctual, gut reactions -- are accurate. It's what cognition experts call "thin-slicing," which Gladwell defines as "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience."
So, as Gladwell notes in several telling anecdotes, an art expert can look at an apparently genuine ancient sculpture and know it's a fake. Or a relationship expert can judge whether a couple has a chance at success by studying their faces for a few minutes. Or famed tennis coach Vic Braden can know -- just know -- when a player is about to double-fault.
These are all correct judgments based on long years of study and strong gifts of observation.
But there are caveats, of course.
We may not realize it, but our snap judgments -- our thin-slicing -- are based on experience and perception, and both can be skewed.
So we may look at a person and base our impression on the color of his or her skin. Or, being human, our judgments can be affected by physiological elements -- a burst of adrenaline, say, or fatigue -- and be off.
"Instinct is the gift of experience," Gladwell says. "The first question you have to ask yourself is, 'On what basis am I making a judgment?' ... If you have no experience, then your instincts aren't any good."
Understanding, and lack of same
One reason for "The Tipping Point's" popularity was its focus on marketing. (Indeed, The New Yorker article that led to Gladwell's book contract involved how the fashion industry charts "cool" among street kids.) The book defined such personalities as the "Maven," an information broker, and the "Connector," a networker, and discussed how fads break into the mainstream.
But if marketers want to look at "Blink" for tips, they'd better look beyond snap judgments. Because part of Gladwell's point is that some things can't be measured instinctively, particularly if you have no idea how to measure them in the first place -- such as music.
One chapter in "Blink" concerns a musician named Kenna. Kenna's not an easily classifiable musician, and in today's music world, that makes him a hard sell. He has the support of many music lovers -- including an Atlantic Records executive, U2 manager Paul McGuinness and a number of club owners -- but when his record was given to a market research company (the sort that do work for radio stations), it flopped.
"Radio stations have constructed a narrow door[way], and that's because they don't understand how complex and paradoxical our snap judgments are," Gladwell says. "It's hard to measure new songs."
And then there is the collision of biases. Gladwell notes that symphony orchestras, thanks partly to blind auditions, have hired more women in recent years -- but if the tryouts aren't blind, and the orchestra leaders see the musician is female, a pro-male bias often kicks in.
Intriguingly, one of Gladwell's New Yorker colleagues -- "The Financial Page" writer James Surowiecki -- wrote a book last year about collective wisdom, "The Wisdom of Crowds." (Full story)
At first glance, the theories presented in Surowiecki's book appear to run counter to the material in "Blink." His book deals with the often inexpert conclusions of a group; Gladwell's talks about the instinctive reaction of the individual. (The two had an open discussion about their works in the pages of Slate.com.)
But, Gladwell says, they're really not so different after all. Both draw from experience -- even unconscious experience -- and both make use of thought processes not given enough credit.
"Both Jim and I are interested in the limits of conventional decision-making," Gladwell says. "The idea that an expert will give you the best outcome -- we think that's inadequate. You need a whole palate of different strategies. We're critiquing the same narrow ideology."
Little, Brown & Co. is a unit of Time Warner, as is CNN.