Friday, April 22, 2011

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

'Sakhi' Book Club April 2011 Pick

There are seven colors in the rainbow; we learn this in preschool. As we grow older, we learn something else; these seven colors and their tones are what we can actually see. Beyond that, there are more than 16 million colors in the visible spectrum. We will never see those colors, simply because our eyes were not designed to see them, though other species are. It strikes me that maybe Malcolm Gladwell is from another species too. Oh, I know his vision is likely limited to the basic visible spectrum like everyone else’s. Yet he seems to see more, and he is generous in sharing those insights. ‘Blink’ for one, is an eye-opener. 

Every moment – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction.

The premise of ‘Blink’ is simple: the quantity of time taken to arrive at a conclusion does not determine the quality of the decision, namely, split-second decisions can be just as good, very often better, than the ones made after great deliberation. As a corollary, our snap judgments are not infallible. We do make mistakes with our off-the-cuff choices. The good thing is that our instinctive responses can be educated and improved.

Galdwell’s m├ętier is offering the reader a dazzling array of examples to prove that his theories can be evinced across the board, that they are in fact, part of an appreciable pattern. He does that here too. We are time and again introduced to art historians, psychologists, athletic coaches, military strategists etc. who use their expertise to engage in flawlessly accurate decision-making. The key-word is ‘expertise’. Innate talent and professional training aside, all these people have something in common. They are not theorists. They’ve put in the man-hours needed in their chosen fields and earned their experience, to the point that their skills have now become second nature to them. They are very, very good at what they do because they’ve been doing it for a long time, and because it is their passion.

As for the rest of us, we’re not going to be able to tell a genuine work of art from a fake, and thank god that no man's fate hangs on our instantaneous presumptions of his innocence or guilt. We will however, continually make snap judgments, because that is part of being human. Our senses feed us a constant stream of input. The problems occur because the filter to process all that feedback is more often than not corrupted, meaning, our judgment is distorted by our unconscious biases. As Gladwell elucidates in ‘The Warren Harding Error’, we too often judge a book by its cover, nor do we always even know what we want. Still less can we put them into words. 

He offers us cases of spectacularly bad decision-making and makes a simple but convincing argument that that in all those instances, good judgment was derailed by a combination of stress, lack of objectivity, lack of time, and/or an overload of information. As he succinctly observes, information is not the same as understanding. Perhaps, this is especially important to remember in the time of the Information Age, when we’re bombarded by useless tidbits of news from all sides. Keeping that in mind, perhaps a more selective approach to the plethora of data available to us would refine our judgment, to make it if not fool-proof, at least less error prone.

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