Friday, November 05, 2010

BOOKS: Blink! by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcom Gladwell, more or less, hit the public consciousness with Outlier which postulates, amongst other things, that the exceptional among us are frequently just talented individuals who combined that talent with at least 10,000 hours of practice when young. But for my money, Blink! - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is just as provocative.

Part of the allure I found in the book is it's application to my life as a Bridge player. Blink! proves, fairly substantially, that first impressions are, in fact, really important. In fact, ADDING information, or trying to QUANTIFY those first impressions, actually leads to lesser accuracy. I know, I know, it seems we should be able to have Columbo solve the mystery in the second act. But, you know, in way, Columbo always did. It was just a case of compiling evidence after that.

So, what about Blink!, me and Bridge? I have always been amongst the fastest Bridge players at the local clubs. I bid and play quickly. And I make enough mistakes to prevent me from being an international level player. And my personality stops me from a top level national player. But I've played with the big boys and I've held my own. I've always been able to make enough instinctive plays to be able to sit at their table ... even if I've been away from the table for months or years at an end. It bothers some of my teammates a fair bit that I can unretire, play well enough to hold my own, and then promptly go right back into retirement.

But, back in the day, when I WAS playing regularly, I occasionally ran up against Eric Caulfield. And, by run up, I mean left standing fuming when I was rotating just behind him. And I hated played against him for the same reason. He was, at that time, the slowest player in all of creation. He also was one of the nicest guy in that same universe, a man I'd like to live next to or even work with. But perish the thought of playing WITH him. Until I had that very thought. I needed to know what made him tick. So I asked him for a game.

After the game in the post-mortem, Eric explained just why he was so slow. He was going over ALL the card combinations. Starting with a 13-0 split and going all the way down to whatever was the opposite of 13-0, depending on the limits of distribution from the cards he could see. For all four suits. For every play. This was how he became successful, and he HAS been successful locally. Me? I always formed an impression quickly about other people's hands and modified it AS I WENT ALONG. And yes, sometimes that resulted in me sitting there looking stunned. Because I WAS stunned. I had been wrong. And sometimes for good Bridge reasons. Which is how I learned. Naturally enough, having learned the secret to Eric's though process, I never asked to play with him again. It at least relieved the frustration I felt when competing against him.

Okay, so back to the book review. Two cases are made against first impressions, to a degree. The first is a successful car salesman who resists the urge to 'label' potential customers coming in the door. It's somewhat persuasive.  The second is the penultimate case cited in the book, the tragedy that Gladwell calls "Seven Seconds in the Bronx." That was the famous Amadou Diallo case wherein the Guinean immigrant was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a minding his own business on the stoop of his apartment, after midnight, in a bad part of New York City. A cruiser with four cops came by. He didn't move. But one of the cops thought his presence there was wrong in some unexplainable manner. The cruiser backed up. Amadou sensed something amiss and ran back into the lobby of the building. As one of the armed officers approached screaming in machine-gun like English, Diallo panicked and reached into his back pocket. Fourty-one bullets later, the officers, all of whom fired at least once, saw him lying there on the floor, his wallet in hand. One of the officers, all of whom were later acquitted, sat down on that same stoop and cried.

More often, Gladwell talks about a sufficiency of information, that having too much information erodes first impressions and leads to less accuracy.  There are several cases, ranging from surprising to obvious. Take for example the art of trying out for orchestras. For years, it was done with no anonymity and was as unjust as you can imagine. Then, screens were put up and the judges could only adjudge by what they heard, not what they saw. And the result was more women in orchestras and women playing instruments long thought of as a man's preserve. The 'added' information of sight was no longer allowed to ruin the first impression of 'sound.'

Other instances, including the first one of the surprisingly pristine Greek statue that proved able to pass months of scientific muster, yet failed the first glance rule with other antiquity experts, make the case for trusting first impressions. Sometimes in odd ways. There was a study that measure lots and lots of variables and came up with a 95 percent success rate in predicting whether marriages would last 15 years. It seems slicing MOST of those variable away still produces a 90 per cent rate. In THIS case, the added information improved accuracy slightly. In OTHER cases, such as asking witnesses to actually write down their description, proved to be deleterious to their successful pointing out of accused later. Gladwell explains why, well.

I still have two more Gladwell books to get to, but I'm not too much in a hurry to get to them. They make me think so much, I need to space them out. But that's just me. No reason YOU can't go out and do them all in a row,

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