Summer Reading: Gladwell and Larson

blink1Now that summer is here I have resumed reading from my books-to-be-read list. Earlier this year I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I really enjoyed the book, so I picked up another of Gladwell’s works, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. While I found Gladwell’s discussion of perceptions and fast judgement interesting, I did not enjoy it as much as Outliers. Much of Blink deals with thin slicing, the ability to make determinations with very small sample sizes. I’ve wondered about my own thin slicing ability in different aspects of life. I like logic and developed arguments, yet I have made good decisions with little supporting data. Some of the science and analyses discussed in the book, predominantly reading human emotions, make me very skeptical. The three predominant things that stick with me from the examples and stories in this book are:

1). The danger of contempt and lack of validation between partners in a marriage. Seeing a seemingly playful conversation exposed as a hostile and demeaning conversation was striking to me (and made me realize I have heard and experienced conversations like this). This concept applies to relationships outside of marriage–the researcher studying it just happened to study it in the context of marriages.

2). First impressions may be heavily skewed by what is normal. New and novel approaches may face a difficult task in overcoming a negative first impression based upon what is accepted or comfortable. Gladwell used the Aeron chair prototype to make this point.

3). Associations in our minds are often misguided. The blatantly racist responses common in America that Gladwell discusses are troubling.

One last thing about Blink. Gladwell talks about the damage that can be done in war when too much information is present. In the afterword he talks about Robert E. Lee defeating Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville. Lee has less information than Hooker, is outnumbered and in a bad position, yet he attacks and wins. In the book this makes a nice, crisp point. Lee is lauded for this decision. What is not mentioned in the book is how similar this situation is to Gettysburg, where Lee faces a similar situation and makes similar moves which result in defeat. (A recent interesting article in the Smithsonian discusses how limitations in the intelligence presented to Lee might have shaped the Battle of Gettysburg.)

whitecityDuring my travels last summer I spent some time in Illinois. Right around the time we were exploring Chicago my friend Ryan recommended The Devil in the White City  by Eric Larson. The book contains the stories of the planning and construction of the 1893 World’s Fair and the life of H. H. Holmes. Larson did copious amounts of research to write the book, and he does an excellent job of adhering closely to facts while responsibly interspersing things like thoughts, emotions, and mundane details that have not been preserved. I enjoyed the book very much, though unsurprisingly it is very disturbing at times (I don’t think a book that dwells on the life of a serial killer can be a feel-good story). I enjoyed all the content about Frederick Law Olmstead because I studied his work years ago at Temple during a Community and Regional Planning class. Reading the book makes me want to visit Chicago again.

Right now I have three books in progress. Hooray for summer!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Summer Reading: Gladwell and Larson

  1. RF

    Blink is based on a lot of the research related to my dissertation and I love military history, so I felt I had to respond, for what it’s worth. First, I think that the book may have missed a distinction between the accuracy of thin slices and the reliability of thin slices. The thing that is most interesting is that thin slices of behavior are just as accurate as very “thick” slices that contain much more information. So there’s the example of the 10 second video clips predicting a professor’s course rating just as well as much longer video clips. What this says is that the important information in predicting something is present during the thin slice and that additional information is uninformative.

    This is why it is a problem for logical people (myself included) in making thin slices based on emotional information. Emotions have always been described as being separate from, unrelated to, or even opposed to logic. The ability to read emotional and mental states from thin slices works very quickly and with relatively high but not perfect accuracy. This is because thin slices are processed by a subconscious brain system that takes emotional information and then sending it back to us very quickly as our own emotions. (An example of this may be briefly seeing a snake-like object in our periphery suddenly sending us a powerful sense of fear). However, additional information and thinking about a situation makes people less accurate because when we think about things, we tend to treat all information as equal and tend to discount the emotional information, both of which lead to inaccuracy. This may be why logical people do struggle a lot of times at dealing with social situations, whereas listening to your emotions may make things better.

    One thing I disagree with the book is the idea that too much information is a bad thing. I don’t think he understands well the ideas of signal and noise, which are very accurate when understanding human information processing. More signal is always good. There can’t be too much signal. But more noise is bad. The problem with thinking is that people can’t separate signal from noise unless they are trained and we tend to judge situations by the lens of the ones we saw previously. Without much signal, Lee would judge Gettysburg in a similar way as Chanchelorsville (though in the latter battle, he had plenty of information) and likely do the same things, even though there were differences in the situation.

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