I OD'd on Malcom Gladwell this week. Wow. The guy has a lot on his mind, and to produce two books of this quality at his age augurs well for our next few decades of reading pleasure.
Tipping Point has been out for a while and, judging by the phrase's use on this board, it's probably created its own culture by now. I was impressed by his coverage of the drop in NYC's crime rate and our house is now slinging around vocabulary like "Mavens", "Connectors", and "Salesmen" with the neighborhood middle-school crowd. They have each other pegged. I liked Gladwell's profiles of Paul Revere vs William Dawes and why only one of them succeeded in warning the militia.
One salesman profiled by Gladwell, a financial advisor named Tom Gau, has apparently invoked Gladwell's observations to found his own FA training program
. The guy is so deeply happy in his workaholic avocation that he'll never retire. (It's nice to see someone enjoy their work so much, but it's clear that his family comes in second.) Gau is proud to have developed over 50 different counters to the customers who say "I can manage my own finances."
Gladwell has reassuring words about kids-- it's not our fault that they turn out the way they do. Well, actually our "fault", if any, lies in genetics & neighborhoods. Gladwell quotes Judith Harris' book "The Nurture Assumption" (another excellent read) to show that the majority of kid's influence is environmental, not parental. The most that we can hope for is to find a neighborhood & schools full of positive role models (peers & adults). Although we don't have much influence on our own kids (other than providing love, shelter, & food) parents still have to work with neighborhood adults to help keep an eye on nurture each other's kids.
For parents of younger kids, I especially enjoyed Gladwell's discussions of why "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues" are so popular. A phenomenal amount of advertising research goes into today's kid's TV shows, and it's good to be aware of its effects. Sesame Street is almost as strongly directed at the parents as the kids. Yeah, it encourages parents to share their kid's experience of learning letters & numbers, but there's also a lot of "Mom, let's buy this!" influence.
It was also interesting to read Gladwell's numbers about drug addicts & smokers. He claims that fewer than 1% of "experimenters" actually become addicted to drugs, and the brain's genetic chemistry is usually what determines which drug(s) trigger the addiction. In other words a lot of kids are inclined to experiment but very few are trapped by their addictive tendencies.
Apparently it's the same with nicotine. My father used to joke that quitting smoking was so easy that he's done it hundreds of times. Gladwell points out research indicating, again, that some bodies respond to nicotine much more strongly than others and quickly become addicted. Most don't. There is apparently a HUGE correlation between depression & smoking-- one study found that patients being treated for depression had a 74% smoking rate. 80% of alcoholics smoke. 90% of schizophrenics smoke. By contrast, of those never diagnosed with a psychiatric syndrome, only 53% had smoked at some point and 31% had managed to quit.
"Blink" goes in a different direction-- the heuristics that we've developed to make instant decisions on little/no data. It's mostly subconscious but there's a strong input from phenomena that we can barely even see, let alone respond to. One example was a fake ancient Greek statue that took literally years to "prove" was fake, even after dozens of experts had first reactions of "ruh-roh." Another is a tennis coach who can predict with 90% accuracy when players will double-fault, although he can't explain how he does it.
Gladwell devotes a number of pages to face-reading experiments by video analysis. Apparently we all plainly display our emotions on our faces for an autonomous microsecond before our conscious efforts take control, and these hundreds of different muscle movements can be studied and used very accurately. It's very difficult and boring work and probably only useful for poker players, law enforcement, & sales experts, but it's a fascinating read into human physiology. One researcher can watch a married couple have a discussion for 15 minutes and, judging by their interaction, predict with over 90% accuracy whether or not they'll divorce within the next seven years. Apparently it is impossible for human facial muscles to hide expressions of contempt...
It's nice to see Paul Van Riper get some press, too. He's a retired USMC general who thoroughly humiliated the Pentagon's expert war gamers by carrying out unexpected terrorist tactics to exact significant damage. He kept "breaking the rules" by coming up with extremely damaging tactics that didn't fit anyone's heuristics. Overwhelming firepower prevailed in the end but the "superior" forces nearly lost the will to fight. Vietnam & Somalia come to mind, as well as the USS COLE, Iraq, & Afghanistan.
Unfortunately our subconscious, while very good at "thin-slicing" the data, frequently fits it into our preconceptions (heuristics again) to arrive at completely the wrong conclusion. He analyzes a very public police shooting of a NYC man by four officers that led to major procedure changes. Based on lessons learned from the incident, NYC actually started putting officers on solo patrols to avoid groupthink & overaggressive behavior. Without a carful of cops to egg them on, solo officers had to either think ahead and avoid trouble or take a deep breath & call for backup.
With these two books in mind, I frequently find myself questioning my own initial impressions & instinctive conclusions. I've learned a lot.
Try for the paperbacks and the most recent editions. Gladwell has corrected editorial mistakes and added extra material.
If I were reading these two books again, I'd do it a couple months apart. Two in one week is too much to process...