Monday, May 14, 2007

Blink: How Words Distort Vision

(Reflection after completing the book BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING by NY Times writer Malcolm Gladwell, and a NEWSWEEK review of a book that runs counter to BLINK called HOW DOCTORS THINK, by Dr. Jerome Groopman.)

During our trip to New York, my high school friend Craig Housman bought a pamphlet on throwing playing cards, hoping to be able to slice bread or halt assailants at forty paces with the Queen of Hearts. He was disappointed.

In a way, I kind of hoped that I would finish reading BLINK able to make complex decisions in a single intuitive bound.

With interesting anecdotes propelling the book, each becoming a sort of model, author Malcolm Gladwell seems to move us forward to such a conclusion. Yes, we learn, initial impressions can be right when months of study can go wrong (as in the example of the Getty museum's purchase of an ersatz antiquity on expert advice after initial "repulsion" by "something wrong" with it). But we also see how New York Police, reacting within a matter of seconds to impressions of "something wrong" chased Amadou Diallo, an unarmed and frightened man, to a corner where they shot him to death.

What good is it to know that first impressions are right, except when they're wrong? A new book, HOW DOCTORS THINK, argues in favor of methodical, deliberate decision-making.

To say that Gladwell opposes this would be to caricature his book. Gladwell's stories do share at least one common element. In story after story, experience has taught people things that they cannot put into words. Worse, when they do try to verbalize their insights, the words cause "second thoughts" that actually obfuscate the reality.

There are sports figures who can't explain their own success, or who explain it wrongly (as demonstrated by slow-motion x-ray video of what their bodies are actually doing). . . There's the experienced firefighter who had the sudden intuition "something's wrong here" and ordered men out just before the floor collapsed, but it wasn't until much later, with help, that he realized what had been wrong: experience had taught him to expect more noise and less heat than he was getting from an apparently isolated kitchen fire. . . There are the lab tests that show how something as simple as exposure to a favorable image of black men in authority can undo deep-seated racial stereotyping in black and whites both, and another that measured anxiety in sweat glands and heart rate as subjects chose red cards, long before their conscious minds figured out to flip only blue cards because the red ones were stacked against them.

Gladwell looks at his subject from many angles. He includes a section on a comedy improv team, showing how they rehearse seriously in order to be able to make up thirty minute plays on the spot. One of their rules is to accept what happens in any situation, rather than fighting against it. (114-116). Experience makes the split-second cooperation possible.

Perhaps most interesting is the story of Pentagon maverick Paul Riper's "Red Team" outsmarting a war room full of top brass, confident in their superior numbers, firepower, communications, and strategy. By not using electronic communications, and concentrating force in one direction, Riper "sinks" a dozen ships and "kills" 20,000 Americans before they have the chance to use their big guns. Riper scorns the long decision-making processes instituted at the Pentagon. Too much information, too much intellection, were no match for quick-striking and sly force. Of course, Shakespeare knew this -- see Hamlet.

So, people with experience can trust their unconscious decision-making, unless their vision is blurred by unconscious bias and / or physical panic. A little experience to break stereotypes helps. So does a little bit of time: Gladwell tells how several police forces are now ordering cops to go on patrols solo, because waiting for back up gives them time to get a little more experience with a subject before making a split-second decision that they'll regret. (I won't forget the cop who, finding a black wallet clutched in Diallo's hand, yelled, "Where's the gun?!" and collapsed, sobbing. )

But words create a "verbal shadow" that can alter one's memories and perceptions, while introspection leads to paralysis, death in a fluid military situation.

I've known this a long time. In fact, it's the crux of my senior honor's thesis at Duke University, about Henry James's antepenultimate novel THE AMBASSADOR -- in which the main character Lambert Strether arrives in Paris knowing the truth, then talks himself out of it.

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