Knee jerk: Four questions for Malcolm Gladwell

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Holiday 36

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell sweats the small stuff. He sniffs out and scribbles about counterintuitive phenomena in business, art, and science. In his best-selling 2002 book, The Tipping Point, he showed how the tiniest environmental factors can explain sudden changes in everything from Gotham's crime rate to fashion trends.

In his latest best-seller, Blink, he excavates our quickest unconscious thoughts to show how they're sometimes a lot smarter than we might've thunk.

John Dicker, a Denver-based writer, recently had a quick conversation with Gladwell about quick thinking.

Dicker: In the book, you show the pluses and minuses of "rapid cognition." Sometimes these snap decisions prove to be dead accurate, but they also tend to reject the unfamiliar, be it a weird looking but highly innovative office chair or a groundbreaking TV sitcom. How can we know when, or even if, to trust our snap decisions?

Gladwell: There's no surefire way of knowing. Just as that there's no surefire way of making sure that any decision is right or wrong. All you can do is take steps that will improve your chances of being right. In the book, I use the example of the screen in the music audition. [In the eighties orchestras began requiring musicians to audition behind screens to prevent gender bias.] The extent that you can remove distractions means you're a step closer to being right.

Dicker: To illustrate the wide world of "blink think," you cover everything from obscure musicians to emergency room heart triage to defense department war games. You even deconstruct the Pepsi Challenge. For a story driven by ideas, as opposed to people and events, how do you find so many disparate examples?

Gladwell: I have no idea how it comes together. There's an almost infinite number of examples to use to make the point. It's not as hard as it might seem. I read a lot, I keep files, I talk to a lot of people. It's just sort of like trial and error.

Dicker: In your books and in the New Yorker, you almost always deal with counterintuitive phenomena. Can you talk about why that's such a recurring theme?

Gladwell: So many things in life seem simple, but once you dig a little, it becomes a lot more complex. That's my favorite thing in journalism, when suddenly the blacks and whites become grays.

Dicker: You talked about how letting your hair grow long inspired this book, and how it changed your life in a lot of ways, from suddenly being singled out by airport security to being pulled over by the police as a rape suspect. People were making snap decisions based on your hair. I'm curious how it might have affected your work in other ways– people might have a certain idea of what a New Yorker writer is supposed to look like, and your hair might not fit the mold?

Gladwell: I'm never really sure of what people's idea of a New Yorker writer is. I also have an old man's name. They think I'm going to be a 67-year-old man. It's a snap judgment.

Gladwell appears Thursday, March 17 at 7:30am for a breakfast at the Omni Hotel, but the event sold out in a– well– blink.

 
Malcolm Gladwell
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

 

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

 By Malcolm Gladwell

Little Brown, New York

254pp. $25.95

 

PULLQUOTE:

"So many things in life seem simple, but once you dig a little it becomes a lot more complex. That's my favorite thing in journalism, when suddenly the blacks and whites become grays."

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