In the blink of an eye Two-second decisions exploredJanuary 30, 2005
Section: ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Dylan Foley Special to The Post The trouble for New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell all started several years ago when he grew his hair out from a conservative short cut to a long Afro.
"I started getting speeding tickets, when I'd never got any before," said Gladwell, from a New York City coffee shop. "Then I got stopped by three undercover cops on a Manhattan street as a rape suspect. I was very surprised, but the cops were nice about it." Gladwell, who is of British and Jamaican descent, looked nothing like the man in the police sketch, who was 50 pounds heavier and 15 years younger. All they had in common was a big head of curly hair.
"His face was younger and meaner than mine," noted Gladwell. The police let Gladwell go after 20 minutes of questions on the street.
"As I thought about it, if you change the situation slightly, it could have been much more ominous," said the slender Gladwell. "They were in an unmarked police car. What if it was 1 in the morning and I had run?
"It made me realize that there is a lot of work going on in those first two seconds. For those cops, they spotted me and were forced to decide, 'Are we interested in that guy?' I knew there was something important there and spooky."
Gladwell has published "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," a thrilling exploration of what goes on behind split decisions, what the brain is processing when police fire their guns and the choices made in speed dating, to the devastating mistakes made in a $250 million U.S. military wargame. The two-second blink, argues Gladwell, can be a good thing in decision-making, used by doctors to diagnose heart attacks to save lives and for psychologists to determine if a marriage will survive.
"The blink is what pops into your head in the first two seconds," said Gladwell. "It is the unthinking, unbidden response. It is thinking, but rapid thinking."
At the New Yorker, the 41-year-old Gladwell has made a career of melding science, psychology and pop culture. He will interview neuroscientists, then apply the knowledge to the mechanics of baseball hitters. In his best seller "The Tipping Point," Gladwell explored the relationship between trends and consumer culture, and what makes something like Puma sneakers become a must-have item.
In the new book, Gladwell follows the work of John Gottman, a psychologist who videotaped newly married couples and by watching mere snippets of their interactions with the sound turned off, he could predict with 90 percent accuracy which marriages would survive 15 years and which wouldn't. Psychologists call this thin slicing, where small, telling details can predict an entire situation's outcome.
"Situations have signatures, people have signatures," said Gladwell. "It is an important idea and counterintuitive. How is it that a marriage can be diagnosed in 15 minutes? There is a kind of DNA to the interaction of two people. There are patterns to how people act, how situations unfold."
With diagnosing heart attacks, conventional medicine dictates that it is best to have all information possible. "People say to understand whether someone is having a heart attack, I need to gather every possible piece of information and somehow collate it. It's not true," said Gladwell. "All kinds of truth are packaged in ways that are instantly understandable."
The mind picks out what is important. "We clearly have a part of our brain that is very good at picking up these patterns and zeroing in on what really matters," he said. "When I give you the examples of Gottman looking at the marriage tapes or guys in the hospital understanding heart attacks, these are examples of what human beings do naturally - look at a pattern and jump to a conclusion. We base this conclusion on something that is real."
Gladwell also goes over disastrous snap judgments in the 20th century, such as the American embrace of Warren G. Harding as president. His handsome face, great hair and beautiful voice led to the worst and most corrupt presidency of the 20th century. Then there is the Getty Museum's purchase of a forged Greek statue in 1983 for millions of dollars. Curators from other museums with nothing to lose found the fake in that professional blink.
Gladwell goes over the infamous Amadou Diallo shooting, where four inexperienced New York City undercover cops fired 41 bullets to kill an unarmed street peddler in a seven-second encounter. But there is the more heartening example of a more experienced cop not shooting an armed teenager when he determined the boy was going to drop his gun.
"The experienced cop was prepared for his split decision," said Gladwell. "He wasn't pushed into a kind of temporary autism of surging heart rate and stress hormones."
To help break out of the temporary autism, Gladwell cites police-training programs. "In the police example, you train people properly, and you teach them how to manage their behavior.
"You take away the partner from the patrol car. You take away the partner, and a police officer is forced to slow down the situation, to be the peacemaker and to call for backup. You don't have a partner egging you on."
In "Blink," Gladwell tackles the issue of decision making with almost a missionary zeal. "A lot of this book is making the obvious point, but a point that we have forgotten," said Gladwell. "It is a defense of this idea of judgment, something we gain with experience. We are infatuated with youth, with young, energetic people who have fancy systems behind them. We have been too dismissive of this undefinable thing called judgment.
"I want people to understand how powerful and fragile this gift we have is," said Gladwell. "I want to raise the level of awareness of this decision-making muscle in our brain that somehow gets forgotten. If I do that, I will be happy."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown, 288 pages, $26