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Basic Instinct

Reviewed by Howard Gardner
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page BW03


The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

By Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown. 277 pp. $25.95

As a teacher of many years standing, I can glance at the first few sentences of a student's essay and anticipate the quality of the entire paper and the feedback that should prove helpful. As a long-time itinerant lecturer, I can utter a few sentences and immediately adjust my remarks to the sophistication and sense of humor of the particular audience. I take these skills for granted, and, for the most part, they operate independently of my conscious awareness.

Some years ago, I had back-to-back experiences that intrigued me. First, I attended an audition by 150 unselected youngsters, given by the master dancer and teacher Jacques D'Amboise. He watched these youngsters swaying and rocking to the music for less than a minute, then selected a handful who would appear in a major public performance a few weeks later. About the same time, I read an article in the New York Times by an unknown actor. His lifetime ambition was to appear in a Woody Allen movie; to prepare for an audition, he saw all of Allen's movies and read his major writings. As he approached Allen, prepared to wow his idol, Allen took a quick look at him and said, "You'll do." I'm a psychologist and have long been an aficionado of the arts, but I could not explain how D'Amboise or Allen just knew.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, a former science and business reporter at The Washington Post who now writes for the New Yorker, offers his account of this sort of seemingly instantaneous judgment. Readers acquainted with Gladwell's articles and his 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point will have high anticipations for this volume; those expectations will be met. The book features the fascinating case studies, skilled interweavings of psychological experiments and explanations and unexpected connections among disparate phenomenon that are Gladwell's impressive trademark.

For most readers, this feast will be more than enough. Yet, with a writer of Gladwell's talents, it is fair to raise the bar and evaluate him by more demanding criteria.

First, though, Gladwell's overall argument. Using intriguing examples, he illustrates how many of us can make fantastically complex decisions in a matter of seconds. These decisions are, more often than not, on the mark -- so much so that further analysis is as likely to be harmful as helpful. For example, experts on Greek art who did not have a vested interest in judging a rare 6th-century sculpture of a youth as authentic sensed immediately that it was fake. Sometimes such expertise has been attained through painstaking analysis; this is what happens when psychologist Paul Ekman concludes that a trained performer is lying, or when another psychologist, John Gottman, predicts which couples are likely to get divorced. In some cases, accumulated experiences suffice, even when the judges cannot explain their methods. Most of us can accurately predict in seconds whether we will like a class or a movie; tennis coach Vic Braden can predict when a server will double-fault but has no idea of the criteria that yield his prediction. And in some cases, nearly all normal individuals know instinctively what to do -- for example, where to direct our attention in a complex, pivotal scene in a movie.

If expertise or mere accumulated experiences sufficed, we could unerringly trust these decisions made as rapidly as the blink of an eye. But such blinks can be deceptive. Gladwell directs considerable attention to instances in which intuition backfired -- for example, when four New York City police officers mistakenly judged that Amadou Diallo was carrying a pistol and plugged his body with 41 bullets. Gladwell shows how a vested interest can distort our usually accurate tendencies -- as when the lust to own the aforementioned Greek kouros blinded the expert curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Beyond question, Gladwell has succeeded in his avowed aim. Though perhaps less immediately seductive than the title and theme of The Tipping Point, Blink satisfies and gratifies. But when an author has hit his stride, it is worth asking how he can avoid falling into a rut. This challenge was faced by Theodore H. White after his enormously successful The Making of the President 1960, and by Philip Roth and John Updike after their early, acclaimed novels about suburban life in mid-20th-century America. And so I pose four questions that Malcolm Gladwell and his readers might wish to consider.

First of all, beyond being entertaining and informative, will Blink be useful to readers? To the extent that the book chronicles the importance of experience and expertise, there is little that one can do except practice and analyze. But Gladwell's cautions about the circumstances under which judgment fails are salutary. For example, for many decades, male players in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra "knew" that women could not play as well as men. Only when they decided to try "blind auditions" did they discover the extent of their prejudices. Indeed, they exhibited disbelief when they finally beheld the skilled, freshly unscreened female instrumentalists with their own eyes.

Next I ask: Is the Gladwellian whole more than the sum of its intriguing parts? The verdict is mixed. Without question, the accumulation of examples strengthens his case. Yet the examples sometimes seem stretched simply to fit under the blink-of-an-eye umbrella. For instance, he describes speed dating, movie popularity and the talented singer Kenna, who -- despite delighting true aficionados -- is unable to break through to stardom. While these are effective set pieces, they do not culminate in an increasingly convincing argument. Here lie the risks that a master of the magazine format confronts when he tackles a book.

I also wondered whether his book constitutes an addition to scholarship. To put it bluntly, would I assign Blink in a basic psychology course? Gladwell is an impressive synthesizer and is, in that sense, a model for teachers and students. Still, this book isn't a substitute for a more considered theory of rapid and usually accurate judgments, and of the conditions under which they go awry. Such books are more likely to be written by scholars who can popularize than by journalists who have scholarly aspirations (which Gladwell may or may not have). The books of academic sociologist David Riesman have a far longer shelf-life than the books of amateur sociologist David Brooks.

Finally, because of Gladwell's singular skills, it is worth identifying the literature to which Blink belongs: journalistic, artistic or scientific. As journalism, it's accurate and informative -- indeed, I would assign it enthusiastically in a writing course. As a literary document, it is compelling reading -- complete with the dramatic opening of the fake Greek sculpture, an exquisite sense of timing within individual set pieces and a skillful culmination in the Diallo and Munich examples. As a work of social scientific synthesis, it deserves high grades. Its failure to contribute to the original scientific literature probably stems from the absence of sufficient pre-existing building blocks in the area. In that sense, Blink differs from The Tipping Point, which could draw on complexity theory, network theory and other already developed analytic frames.

As a final challenge, I suggest that Gladwell attempt to integrate his conclusions about intuition and tipping points into a single account -- perhaps initially as a short, theory-oriented paper, then ultimately as a more ambitious, integrative book. Should he succeed, he will have achieved a milestone in his own development -- and in the process served as an impressive role model for future science writers. •

Howard Gardner, a psychologist, is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is "Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds."

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