NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In his new book, "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment, a simple gambling game. There are four decks of cards in front of you: two red, two blue. You have to turn over one card at a time and, each time, either you win some money or you lose some. What you don't know is that the decks are stacked. The red decks have some big-time winners but more big-time losers. You can't win with red. The blue decks give you a nice steady series of modest payoffs and only a few losers. Stick with blue, you'll go home a winner.
So, Malcolm Gladwell, how long does it take players to figure this out?
Mr. MALCOLM GLADWELL (Author, "Blink"): Well, consciously, if you ask them after about 50 cards, they'll say, 'You know, there's something wrong with red.' And after about 70 cards, they'll say, 'I get it. You know, the payoffs are big but the losses are greater with red,' right? So they figure it out logically after 70 cards. But at the same time, if you measure their skin conductance on their palms, that is, how much--you know, when you--when we're under stress, our palms start to sweat, so you measuring that sweat. What you find is that after about 10 cards, their palms are sweating whenever they take cards from the red deck. And if you look at their behavior, you'll see that long before they're consciously aware that they're supposed to stay away from red, they've started to shift from red towards blue. And what that says to me is that there's another--we have a second kind of brain operating below the surface that's capable of making very sophisticated judgments very quickly, and that's really what my book is about.
CONAN: In "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell argues, indeed, that our brain has two systems we use to make decisions: the conscious mind that we use to collect information and weigh the pros and cons, and an unconscious that's evolved to make snap decisions much more quickly with much less information. In a lot of situations, he argues, we can learn all we need to know in two seconds, in a blink.
Later in the program President Bush decides on a new secretary of Homeland Security, and the measure of disaster, the technology and techniques of sizing up the tsunami.
But, first, thinking without thinking. If you're skeptical that snap decisions are better than considered ones, give us a call. If you've got examples of good snap decisions or terrible ones, we'd like to hear from you as well. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and he's with us from our bureau in New York, and one point you emphasize in "Blink" is that this ability we all have is unknowable. You describe it as 'a black box,' that gamblers don't consciously know why they're sweating and why they're unconsciously leaning towards blue.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, the reason this kind of thinking is do difficult and requires explanation is it is entirely below the surface of awareness. We don't know the reasons we're coming to these kinds of conclusions. And, you know, I devote a whole lot of the book, a big chapter of the book, to describing to all the--all the bad things that happen when you require people to explain what cannot be explained. And so I'm very critical, for example, of a lot of market research, and, you know, where you're measuring someone's snap judgment and then you say, 'Well, why do you like that?' Or 'What's the reason why you, you know, love my new kind of Cheerios?' And the truth is you can't--we can't tell you. We can only make up stories. And very often the stories bear no relationship to the truth.
CONAN: Yet there are people who can tell you, people who are expert in those things.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah.
CONAN: I didn't know that you measured 14 levels of crunchiness, for example.
Mr. GLADWELL: That's right. No, I--one of the things I was interested in doing as well in the book is trying to describe--OK, what makes someone expert at something? And I think that a key component of expertise is that you gradually, over time and with experience, learn--have a deeper understanding of this unconscious part of your thinking. And you begin to understand why you come to the conclusions you do that way and you begin to learn how to trust this faculty. But the--Oh, go ahead.
CONAN: I was just going to say--I'm asking for an example. And the one you used throughout the book is the example of a statue, a Greek statue, supposedly dug out of the ground and purchased by the Getty Museum. Supposedly a great find. Tell us about that.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. The Getty in 1980 bought a kouro. It's a marble statue of a boy, about eight feet tall, and there were dozens of these kouros that were done in ancient Greece. And someone came to them with what seemed like an extraordinary example of this genre and the Getty spent a year analyzing it, submitting it to every known scientific test until they were absolutely sure it was true and they bought it for $10 million. And they, you know, were completely excited with their find.
And they--there was a woman named Evelyn Harrison, one of the world's great experts on Greek art, and she happened to be in the Getty when they just bought it. And they said, 'Evelyn, we have something to show you.' And they brought her down to the basement and they whisked the cloth off and she looked at it and she said, 'Oh, my God. It's a fake. What are you guys doing?' Right? And they were like 'No, no, no, it's real. We spent a year testing it.'
And then they brought in Thomas Hoving, another expert in Greek art, and whisked the cloth off and he said, 'It's fake. Are you guys crazy?' You know? 'Is it too late to take the check back?' What you had was this conflict between these two different ways of understanding something, the experts who saw it in two seconds and the other people who'd studied it rationally and logically for a year. And as it turns out, the people who said it was a fake were right. It was a fake, as it--you know, as the--as once we learn more about that.
It's a wonderful example about how in the right hands this ability to know without really knowing why we know--but to know in that first instant is extraordinarily powerful. And the Getty made a--the Getty erred because they didn't take the instincts of experts seriously.
CONAN: And one of the things you point out, again, is this ability is--you can--you can't see into it, you can't analyze it, but you can train it. Tom Hoving, the former head of The Metropolitan Museum in New York, you say, he used to go down into the basement of The Met, as a much younger man, and do this all the time. He was training himself to do this.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. Spent hours holding, touching, looking at works of art, trying to understand--trying to kind of build up that store in his unconscious about all the sort of facts and opinions and data on the kind of art that he was gonna spend his life studying. And that's what happens when we accumulate experience is I think we start to educate our unconscious in this very powerful way.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Christopher Paris(ph) in Crowley, Louisiana. 'My grandmother was a great fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and believed the most probable explanation for any given phenomenon is most often the simplest, which covers all facts. She used to tell me that the so-called "snap judgment" or "intuition" was simply the result of a person's total experience and learning distilled in an instant and nothing more mysterious than that.'
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes, I think that's a wonderful explanation of what I'm talking about. But what's interesting to me is that we don't respect that. I mean, that woman was--the reader's grandmother was a rare example of someone who understood just how powerful that snap judgment can be. We live in a society, by the--that, to the contrary, has come, I think, to fetishize the products of very, very deliberate, drawn-out rational and conscious decision-making. And we've forgotten what's powerful about this kind of snap judgment.
CONAN: This is an evolutionary development, you think?
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. I think that there are--that we had to develop early on in our history the ability to make good decisions quickly. If you think about the number of high-stress, high-pressure decisions that, you know, someone in the Stone Age must have made, or someone walking through the jungles of Africa millions of years ago, you had to decide instantly whether the man in front of you was scared of you or you ought to be scared of him. And that had to be done in a fraction of a second. You couldn't sit down and work through all of it--all of the facts. And so we've--you know, for very good reasons, have developed this part of our brain that can leap to decisions, to conclusions, in certain kinds of situations. But it--I must say that, you know, a good chunk of the book is also concerned about when those snap decisions go wrong and why they go wrong, and that's--because I think they go wrong as well as often as they go right, and we need to be much smarter about understanding the difference between those two states.
CONAN: Well, we'll be talking about--more about both kinds of snap decisions, the good ones and the bad ones. We want your calls, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com. And let's talk with Gabriel who's with us in Denver, Colorado.
GABRIEL (Caller): Hi. Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.
GABRIEL: Thank you for taking my call. I entirely agree with Mr. Gladwell. I'm a professor and I've long agreed with him. I have a comment. I believe that snap decisions work better at discrimination between two things than they do at characterization, than determining the nature of something, and I was--I also believe that that's where snap judgments go wrong, when discrimination is taken for characterization. In other words...
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes.
GABRIEL: ...the differences were taken for essence. I'll take my comment off the air.
CONAN: OK, thanks for the call, Gabriel. Thanks.
Mr. GLADWELL: I think that's a really interesting and important way of thinking about it. I mean, I try and develop in "Blink" a kind of taxonomy to help people distinguish between those cases when these kinds of instincts are powerful and ought to be trusted, and those cases when they're hugely problematic, and I spend a chapter, for example, on the Diallo shooting five years ago. You know, the young black man who was shot 41 times by police officers who thought that he was pulling a gun out of his pocket, and he was pulling out a wallet. There's a case of snap judgments gone horribly wrong, and I try to understand why they went wrong. But to go to the listener's point, you know, with the fake, in telling whether this Getty kouros was real or fake, that was a case of discrimination, right? Does it belong into the good category, or the bad category? And that judgment can be made in a second. If you were going to give a complex understanding of what kind of statue this is, you can't do that in a second. The listener's quite right. That's when we need to rely on other parts of our cognition. But in making that initial categorization decision, you know, the--our 'blink of an eye' abilities are quite extraordinary.
CONAN: Yet there are--as you point out, there's a presidential candidate you write about who everybody really loved because he looked so presidential. Their judgments were completely wrong.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, I call this the 'Warren Harding error.' Warren Harding is our finest-looking president, ever. An extraordinary-looking man with a deep gravelly voice and a big broad chest and an iron jaw and silver at the temples and piercing eyes and everyone throughout his entire career looked at him and said, you know, 'My God, what an extraordinary, you know, looking man. He ought to be president.' And, sure enough, on the basis of his looks and almost nothing else, he got elected president, and he was a numskull. He, without question, the dumbest, most shiftless, worthless man ever to occupy the White House. And this is an error that I think is made repeatedly, that people made a snap judgment of this man, and he matched up with our image, our kind of superficial image of what leadership ought to look like, but he had none of the other qualities. And, you know, I spend a lot of time in my book talking about the tall CEO syndrome.
Mr. GLADWELL: You know? If you--I called up all the Fortune 500 CEOs in this country and found out that they're all tall. And, you know, what does that have to do with their ability to lead a country? Or lead a company?
CONAN: We'll talk--a company or a country, for that matter.
Mr. GLADWELL: Or a country.
CONAN: Unless you're Napoleon. Anyway, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK if you'd like to discuss how we make decisions, snap judgments or considered judgments. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking with author Malcolm Gladwell about the power of split-second decision-making and how we often know something before we know we know it. How would you rate your ability to make snap judgments? Of course, you're invited to join the discussion, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malcolm Gladwell, I wanted to get back to--you mentioned the Amadou Diallo case a moment ago just before the break. This was, again, if you just joined us, the man who was shot 41 times in the Bronx by police officers. And you said there were those who said it was a horrible accident, an inevitable byproduct of the fact that police officers sometimes have to make life or death decisions in conditions of uncertainty. That's what the jury in the Diallo case concluded. On the other side were those who saw what happened as an open and shut case of racism. You said neither explanation really satisfied you.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes, that's why I wanted to--I spend a big chunk of this book going through that case, second by second, and, as I point out, from the moment the police stop the car outside Diallo's house to the moment Diallo lies dead on the sidewalk, is seven seconds. So we're talking about a series of snap judgments. This is not some drawn-out considered action. It's boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And he's dead. And none of those are satisfactory explanations because the idea that it's inevitable, to me, is wrong, because the police in that situation made a series of judgments of who this man was and the kinds of judgments we make, snap judgments, are not inevitable. They're influenced by our training, by our society, by the contents of our hearts, by all kinds of things.
At the same time, to say that it's open and shut racism is simply insufficient. Because where does that leave you? How do you try and prevent this from happening again? And, you know, if cops are racist, why aren't they doing the Diallo thing every day? They're not. They--there are lots of times where they meet black people and black people don't end up dead. So you've got to find out--both of those are unsatisfactory. So what I do is I go through that case second by second and try and break down all of the mistaken snap judgments that happened, and why did they make them. So, for example, one of the big snap judgments they make is that this guy's dangerous. Right? They think that this guy is terrifying. In fact, he's terrified.
Now the difference between terrifying and terrified is huge. It's all the difference in the world, right? They clearly missed all of the cues in Diallo which suggested that he was terrified. Why did they miss them? All right? So I go into that about what was it about that situation that created a--that gross error because normally we're really good at distinguishing between people who we ought to be scared of and people who are scared. You know? And then I try and talk about 'Well, what are the things that we could have done to have made better snap decisions possible in those seven seconds?'
CONAN: One--race plays a--sort of a subtext to the--in the book. There's another long chapter about something called the IAT, which is a kind of a test that's given at Harvard by--describe it. There's a particularly famous IAT, the Race IAT.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. It's a test. It's very difficult to describe on the radio, sadly. But it's test that measures how quickly you make associations between like black people and positive or negative things, so you're sitting there at a computer and you're putting things into different categories and the question is, people putting words into a category and the category is--includes African-Americans. Does it take longer for you to associate a good word with African-American than a bad word with African-American? Like, does it take longer to associate 'happiness' with African-American or 'evil' with African-American?
And it's a--basically what they do is they measure how long it takes you to make these associations and from that get some sense of what they call your unconscious racism, the extent to which you have kind of--you express discrimination below the level of awareness. And millions of people have taken this test now and we found out some really fascinating things. And that is that there is no real necessary correlation between your conscious feelings about race and your unconscious feelings about race. So, for example, I scored on that test--it said that I had a kind of moderate degree of discrimination against black people.
Now I'm biracial. So that's quite a mouthful for me. Right? I mean, it basically says that on some level I have a problem with my mother. Right? And that's true of many black people that we have, below the surface, unconsciously conflicted feelings about things associated with our race. And that has to do with the fact that we live in a society which is constantly pairing the term African-American with bad things. And it's impossible for us, on an unconscious level, to kind of turn those influences off. Now those kinds of--that kind of unconscious racism plays a big role below the surface in how black people are treated in this country, for example, and how women are treated and how all kinds of any kind of stigmatized group. And I think we need to understand and appreciate and deal with that if we're going to create a more fair society.
CONAN: If you're interested in taking this test, by the way, there's a link to it on our Web site at npr.org. Just go to the TALK OF THE NATION page and there's a link to it. You mention it in your book.
Anyway, let's get some listeners back in the conversation. And let's talk with Robert. Robert's with us from Palo Alto.
ROBERT (Caller): Yes. Comment on the ability to form these snap judgment. I believe that it is--from an evolutionary standpoint, it's based on giving a very quick response to a negative situation. Has the research shown that we form sort of a positive match for a--towards a negative, much faster than we have the ability to form a positive association with anything?
Mr. GLADWELL: Oh, that's interesting. Are there differences? Well, immediately when you were talking, what came to mind for me was romantic attraction, which is a case we're able to understand instantly a very, very positive emotion. And I'm not sure what the exact evolutionary explanation for that is, but I spend a lot of time in my--I have a whole chunk in my book where I talk about speed-dating. You know, where they set you up in a room with 20 boys and 20 girls and you get three minutes each, right? And, of course, if you talk to people who've done speed-dating, they'll tell you that three minutes is roughly two minutes and 55 seconds too long.
CONAN: Yeah, there's a wonderful line in the book. 'They lost me at hello.'
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes, 'they lost me at hello.' You know, you know what? Right away, without--you know, we're as good at understanding who we are attracted to instantly as we are at understanding who we're terrified of instantly. And so there's clearly some--a lot going on below the surface in that blink of an eye.
CONAN: There's an--by the way, thanks for the call, Robert.
There's an e-mail we have from Joan Klein(ph). 'The most extraordinary snap decision I ever made was in 1958. I met a man who I decided to marry three days after we met, never having been together alone. I was engaged to another man at the time. I broke the engagement. We married three weeks later. The marriage last 45 years until he died in 2003. I never regretted the decision. We had a great life.'
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. No. That's a beautiful tribute to what's possible here. And, you know, what I would love to do or what I'm trying to do with this book is to at least start a process by which we try and understand what makes--I mean, that listener made a wonderful snap judgment. So let's try and understand why was she able to make such a good one? You know, there--is it possible to kind of bottle that so that the rest of us can make snap judgments that are as successful?
CONAN: Let's talk with Anne. Anne's calling from Northfield, Minnesota.
ANNE (Caller): Hi. I have an example of the snap judgment that turned out to be correct. At one time I was living in a remote rural area in Wisconsin and a wider community that was--tended to be very helpful to each other and one day there was a knock at my door and there was a nice-looking young man wanting to use my phone, and I felt as if there were an alarm that buzzed inside my head. And I politely suggested that he drive down the road and ask one of the farmers and as soon as I shut the door, my heart was pounding, and the baby I was holding began screaming, and later I learned that he was an armed man who had raped several women that morning. His method was not to attack until he was inside.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, the...
CONAN: And did you ever think back to, Anne, as to what it was that triggered your decision?
ANNE: Well, the buzzer triggered my decision but I think it was that knowing without knowing. Actually he had initially asked for gas. He said he had run out of gas. And I said, 'No, we don't have any.' And he pointed to our yard and said, 'Well, don't you have gas for your lawn mower?' Well, we had just built our house. We didn't have a lawn yet. We had only three-foot tall weeds. And...
CONAN: So, in other words, there's nothing specific that you can remember that triggered that alarm bell in your head?
ANNE: No, except that I think maybe in the back of my mind I knew he should know that we wouldn't have...
CONAN: A lawn mower.
ANNE: A lawn mower.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah.
CONAN: It gets back to that knowability, Malcolm.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, I don't know whether it's--that's a really, really wonderful story as well, and it goes to this point that in that moment when you were standing at the door and the man was there, you were gathering hundreds if not thousands of pieces of information about him and your mind was sorting them in an extraordinary fast way and giving you a kind of answer and I don't know whether it's ever possible for you to fully know all the data that was used to make that decision.
You know, I have in my book a--this is, a--by comparison, a very trivial example, but I talk about how one of the world's great tennis coaches, Vic Braden, can always tell when someone is about to double fault, always. And he has no idea why. And he is--tortured himself, because he's coach. Tortured himself for decades in trying to figure out--because he'd love to know why he knows when someone's about to double fault so he can teach tennis players to be better servers. And he can't. He can't figure it out. Clearly in that moment he's gathering an extraordinary amount of information about the person serving and sorting it in some sophisticated way and that--but that judgment, as powerful as it is, has this unknowable element. And as much as we try and go over our experiences rationally, I'm not sure we can ever fully understand why we reached the conclusions we do.
CONAN: Anne, thank you very much.
ANNE: You're welcome.
CONAN: Let's talk now with Frank. Frank is with us from Detroit.
FRANK: Hi. How's it going?
CONAN: All right.
FRANK: I'm trying to be as objective as possible, but there are a number of things that your guest said that kind of bothered me, and I just couldn't help myself. I had to call in.
Mr. GLADWELL: OK.
FRANK: I think what sparked it was the issue regarding the Diallo case.
FRANK: And when you think about what happened to Mr. Diallo and how many times that sort of thing happens to people around the country, and take into consideration that predominantly it tends to happen with black people, especially with black men, I don't think it's dismissive to concur logically that it has something to do with race.
Another thing that kind of bothered me, and I'm paraphrasing a bit here, but your guest alluded to the idea that snap judgment is likely to be incorrect about half the time and likely to be correct half the time. Well, as someone who's been studying statistics for quite a while, duh!
CONAN: Yeah. You could flip a coin and get the same result.
FRANK: Pretty much. And yeah, I was going to use the idea of flipping a fair coin as an example. And...
CONAN: Yeah. Well, let's get a response from Malcolm Gladwell.
Mr. GLADWELL: Well, two things. One is, race absolutely--if you read the chapter in my book "Blink," I talk at length about the significance of race in that story. I think it's--in what happened to Diallo, it is of absolutely critical importance that he's a young black man in the Bronx. There's no--so I'm not denying that. What I'm trying to do is to understand precisely how what kinds of, what form of racism contributed to the officers' actions, and to understand how we might prevent that from happening in the future. And if you try to make that step to prevention, you've got to go beyond this question of--you know, just labeling that as a racist act doesn't help in fixing it in the future. So I say, 'Well, let's'--that's why I'm interested in broadening out my appreciation and my understanding of what happened in those seven seconds.
But does--you know, a young white man standing outside of his apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan does not get shot 41 times by the police, absolutely. So I don't mean to--I mean, it's hard in a short radio interview to kind of give the gist of a 10,000-word chapter, but I assure you, if you read it, you'll...
Now on the question of--there are sometimes wrong and sometimes right--but it's not chance--that's the thing--that when you look very closely at snap judgments, you can come to understand why certain kinds of snap judgments are successful and why some are not. I really think there are, by close examination--it's possible to say, 'OK, this contributes to successful ones, and this is the kind of thing that corrupts us.' So in the case of the Diallo shooting, for example, I spend a lot of time talking about the significance of the fact that there was a group of police officers. Police officers in groups make far worse decisions than police officers by themselves, right?
So it's not the case that--so there's a case where, by taking away--there were four cops in Diallo's case. If we'd taken away three of those police officers, we would have improved the quality of their snap decision. So that kind of--you know, we can look at them and we can learn about how to nudge that success rate from, you know, as you point out, chance, to something I think much closer to, you know, 70, 80 percent--I don't have a number, but...
Mr. GLADWELL: ...something where it's a really useful guide as opposed to something that's iffy.
CONAN: Frank, thanks very much for the call.
Mr. GLADWELL: Thank you.
FRANK: Thank you.
CONAN: We're speaking with Malcolm Gladwell about his new book, "Blink," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And an e-mail getting to that point you were talking about: 'How can you learn to trust your intuition and stop second-guessing yourself? Can you learn to not overthink and listen to your subconscious mind?'
Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. I think this overthinking problem is something that we need to confront as a society, because we have rapidly increased the complexity of nearly every decision we make. And when you increase the complexity of decisions, we know that all kinds of weird and perverse things happen. So I have a chapter in my book that talks about this hospital in Chicago that was trying to improve the quality of doctors' decisionmaking about whether people had a heart attack. And what they discovered was, if they radically simplified the amount of information a doctor was given about each patient, then the doctor's ability to successfully diagnose heart disease or a heart attack improved dramatically.
So there was a case where--we're concerned about--we want to have doctors make the best possible snap decisions in the ER, right? They have to.
Mr. GLADWELL: They're being--they're making a thousand decisions an hour.
CONAN: Life and death...
Mr. GLADWELL: How can we help them?
CONAN: ...literally. Yeah.
Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. How can we help them? And what that hospital did is it stepped in and it created a kind of structure that radically simplified their jobs and made their snap decisions suddenly a lot more effective, a lot more successful than they had been in the past.
I would like to see us marry, in other words, our kind of conscious, rational, deliberate kind of thinking--use the power of that to make our snap judgments better. I think we can combine these two halves of our brain and end up the better for it.
CONAN: Malcolm Gladwell, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. GLADWELL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Malcolm Gladwell's new book is "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
When we come back from a short break, we'll learn a little bit about the man President Bush has named to be the new secretary of Homeland Security, and we'll talk about how scientists have now been able to measure the tsunami wave as it crossed the Indian Ocean. How big was it, and how did they do it?
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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