[Paleopsych] New Republic: Posner on Gladwell's Blinkered

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    by Richard A. Posner
    Post date 01.16.05 | Issue date 01.24.05

    Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
    By Malcolm Gladwell
    (Little, Brown, 277 pp., $25.95)

    T here are two types of thinking, to oversimplify grossly. We may call
    them intuitive and articulate. The first is the domain of hunches,
    snap judgments, emotional reactions, and first impressions--in short,
    instant responses to sensations. Obviously there is a cognitive
    process involved in such mental processes; one is responding to
    information. But there is no conscious thought, because there is no
    time for it. The second type of thinking is the domain of logic,
    deliberation, reasoned discussion, and scientific method. Here
    thinking is conscious: it occurs in words or sentences or symbols or
    concepts or formulas, and so it takes time. Articulate thinking is the
    model of rationality, while intuitive thinking is often seen as
    primitive, "emotional" in a derogatory sense, the only type of
    thinking of which animals are capable; and so it is articulate
    thinking that distinguishes human beings from the "lower" animals.

    When, many years ago, a judge confessed that his decisions were based
    largely on hunch, this caused a bit of a scandal; but there is
    increasing recognition that while judicial opinions, in which the
    judge explains his decision, are models of articulate thinking, the
    decision itself--the outcome, the winner--will often come to the judge
    in a flash. But finally the contrast between intuitive and articulate
    thinking is overdrawn: it ignores the fact that deliberative
    procedures can become unconscious simply by becoming habitual, without
    thereby being intuitive in the sense of pre-verbal or emotional; and
    that might be the case with judicial decisions, too.

    Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, wishes to bring to a popular audience
    the results of recent research in psychology and related disciplines,
    such as neuroscience, which not only confirm the importance of
    intuitive cognition in human beings but also offer a qualified
    vindication of it. He argues that intuition is often superior to
    articulate thinking. It often misleads, to be sure; but with an
    awareness of the pitfalls we may be able to avoid them.

    As Exhibit A for the superiority of intuitive to articulate thinking,
    Gladwell offers the case of a purported ancient Greek statue that was
    offered to the Getty Museum for $10 million. Months of careful study
    by a geologist (to determine the age of the statue) and by the
    museum's lawyers (to trace the statue's provenance) convinced the
    museum that it was genuine. But when historians of ancient art looked
    at it, they experienced an "intuitive revulsion," and indeed it was
    eventually proved to be a fake.

    The example is actually a bad one for Gladwell's point, though it is a
    good illustration of the weakness of this book, which is a series of
    loosely connected anecdotes, rich in "human interest" particulars but
    poor in analysis. There is irony in the book's blizzard of anecdotal
    details. One of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be
    overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the
    irrelevant. An anecdote about food tasters begins: "One bright summer
    day, I had lunch with two women who run a company in New Jersey called
    Sensory Spectrum." The weather, the season, and the state are all
    irrelevant. And likewise that hospital chairman Brendan Reilly "is a
    tall man with a runner's slender build." Or that "inside, JFCOM [Joint
    Forces Command] looks like a very ordinary office building.... The
    business of JFCOM, however, is anything but ordinary." These are
    typical examples of Gladwell's style, which is bland and padded with

    But back to the case of the Greek statue. It illustrates not the
    difference between intuitive thinking and articulate thinking, but
    different articulate methods of determining the authenticity of a work
    of art. One method is to trace the chain of title, ideally back to the
    artist himself (impossible in this case); another is to perform
    chemical tests on the material of the work; and a third is to compare
    the appearance of the work to that of works of art known to be
    authentic. The fact that the first two methods happened to take longer
    in the particular case of the Getty statue is happenstance. Had the
    seller produced a bill of sale from Phidias to Cleopatra, or the
    chemist noticed that the statue was made out of plastic rather than
    marble, the fake would have been detected in the blink of an eye.
    Conversely, had the statue looked more like authentic statues of its
    type, the art historians might have had to conduct a painstakingly
    detailed comparison of each feature of the work with the corresponding
    features of authentic works. Thus the speed with which the historians
    spotted this particular fake is irrelevant to Gladwell's thesis.
    Practice may not make perfect, but it enables an experienced person to
    arrive at conclusions more quickly than a neophyte. The expert's snap
    judgment is the result of a deliberative process made unconscious
    through habituation.

    As one moves from anecdote to anecdote, the reader of Blink quickly
    realizes, though its author does not, that a variety of interestingly
    different mental operations are being crammed unhelpfully into the
    "rapid cognition" pigeonhole. In one anecdote, Dr. Lee Goldman
    discovers that the most reliable quick way of determining whether a
    patient admitted to a hospital with chest pains is about to have a
    heart attack is by using an algorithm based on just four data: the
    results of the patient's electrocardiogram, the pain being unstable
    angina, the presence of fluid in the lungs, and systolic blood
    pressure below one hundred. There is no diagnostic gain, Goldman
    found, from also knowing whether the patient has the traditional risk
    factors for heart disease, such as being a smoker or suffering from
    diabetes. In fact, there is a diagnostic loss, because an admitting
    doctor who gave weight to these factors (which are indeed good
    long-term predictors of heart disease) would be unlikely to admit a
    patient who had none of the traditional risk factors but was predicted
    by the algorithm to be about to have a heart attack.

    T o illustrate where rapid cognition can go wrong, Gladwell introduces
    us to Bob Golomb, an auto salesman who attributes his success to the
    fact that "he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her
    appearance." More unwitting irony here, for Gladwell himself is
    preoccupied with people's appearances. Think of Reilly, with his
    runner's build; or John Gottman, who claims to be able by listening to
    a married couple talk for fifteen minutes to determine with almost 90
    percent accuracy whether they will still be married in fifteen years,
    and whom Gladwell superfluously describes as "a middle-aged man with
    owl-like eyes, silvery hair, and a neatly trimmed beard. He is short
    and very charming...." And then there is "Klin, who bears a striking
    resemblance to the actor Martin Short, is half Israeli and half
    Brazilian, and he speaks with an understandably peculiar accent."
    Sheer clutter.

    Golomb, the successful auto salesman, is contrasted with the salesmen
    in a study in which black and white men and women, carefully selected
    to be similar in every aspect except race and sex, pretended to shop
    for cars. The blacks were quoted higher prices than the whites, and
    the women higher prices than the men. Gladwell interprets this to mean
    that the salesmen lost out on good deals by judging people on the
    basis of their appearance. But the study shows no such thing. The
    authors of the study did not say, and Gladwell does not show, and
    Golomb did not suggest, that auto salesmen are incorrect in believing
    that blacks and women are less experienced or assiduous or
    pertinacious car shoppers than white males and therefore can be
    induced to pay higher prices. The Golomb story contained no mention of
    race or sex. (Flemington, where Golomb works, is a small town in
    central New Jersey that is only 3 percent black.) And when he said he
    tries not to judge a person on the basis of the person's appearance,
    it seems that all he meant was that shabbily dressed and otherwise
    unprepossessing shoppers are often serious about buying a car. "Now,
    if you saw this man [a farmer], with his coveralls and his cow dung,
    you'd figure he was not a worthy customer. But in fact, as we say in
    the trade, he's all cashed up."

    It would not occur to Gladwell, a good liberal, that an auto
    salesman's discriminating on the basis of race or sex might be a
    rational form of the "rapid cognition" that he admires. If two groups
    happen to differ on average, even though there is considerable overlap
    between the groups, it may be sensible to ascribe the group's average
    characteristics to each member of the group, even though one knows
    that many members deviate from the average. An individual's
    characteristics may be difficult to determine in a brief encounter,
    and a salesman cannot afford to waste his time in a protracted one,
    and so he may quote a high price to every black shopper even though he
    knows that some blacks are just as shrewd and experienced car shoppers
    as the average white, or more so. Economists use the term "statistical
    discrimination" to describe this behavior. It is a better label than
    stereotyping for what is going on in the auto-dealer case, because it
    is more precise and lacks the distracting negative connotation of
    stereotype, defined by Gladwell as "a rigid and unyielding system."
    But is it? Think of how stereotypes of professional women, Asians, and
    homosexuals have changed in recent years. Statistical discrimination
    erodes as the average characteristics of different groups converge.

    Gladwell reports an experiment in which some students are told before
    a test to think about professors and other students are told to think
    about soccer hooligans, and the first group does better on the test.
    He thinks this result shows the fallacy of stereotypical thinking. The
    experimenter claimed it showed that people are so suggestible that
    they can be put in a frame of mind in which they feel smarter and
    therefore perform smarter. The claim is undermined by a literature of
    which Gladwell seems unaware, which finds that self-esteem is
    correlated negatively rather than positively with academic
    performance. Yet, true or false, the claim is unrelated to statistical
    discrimination, which is a matter of basing judgments on partial

    The average male CEO of a Fortune 500 company is significantly taller
    than the average American male, and Gladwell offers this as another
    example of stereotypical thinking. That is not very plausible; a CEO
    is selected only after a careful search to determine the candidate's
    individual characteristics. Gladwell ignores the possibility that tall
    men are disproportionately selected for leadership positions because
    of personality characteristics that are correlated with height,
    notably self-confidence and a sense of superiority perhaps derived
    from experiences in childhood, when tall boys lord it over short ones.
    Height might be a tiebreaker, but it would be unlikely to land the job
    for a candidate whom an elaborate search process revealed to be less
    qualified than a shorter candidate.

    G ladwell applauds the rule that a police officer who stops a car
    driven by someone thought to be armed should approach the seated
    driver from the rear on the driver's side but pause before he reaches
    the driver, so that he will be standing slightly behind where the
    driver is sitting. The driver, if he wants to shoot the officer, will
    have to twist around in his seat, and this will give the officer more
    time to react. Gladwell says that this rule is designed to prevent
    what he calls "temporary autism." This is one of many cutesy phrases
    and business-guru slogans in which this book abounds. Others include
    "mind-blindness," "listening with your eyes," "thin slicing"--which
    means basing a decision on a small amount of the available
    information--and the "Warren Harding error," which is thinking that
    someone who looks presidential must have the qualities of a good

    Autistic people treat people as inanimate objects rather than as
    thinking beings like themselves, and as a result they have trouble
    predicting behavior. Gladwell argues that a police officer who fears
    that his life is in danger will be unable to read the suspect's face
    and gestures for reliable clues to intentions (Gladwell calls this
    "mind reading") and is therefore likely to make a mistake; he is
    "mind-blinded," as if he were autistic. The rule gives him more time
    to decide what the suspect's intentions are. It seems a sensible rule,
    but the assessment of it gains nothing from a reference to autism.
    Obviously you are less likely to shoot a person in mistaken
    self-defense the more time you have in which to assess his

    Gladwell endorses a claim by the psychologist Paul Ekman that careful
    study of a person's face while he is speaking will reveal unerringly
    whether he is lying. Were this true, the implications would be
    revolutionary. The CIA could discard its lie detectors. Psychologists
    trained by Ekman could be hired to study videotapes of courtroom
    testimony and advise judges and jurors whom to believe and whom to
    convict of perjury. Ekman's "Facial Action Coding System" would
    dominate the trial process. Gladwell is completely credulous about
    Ekman's claims. Ekman told him that he studied Bill Clinton's facial
    expressions during the 1992 campaign and told his wife, "This is a guy
    who wants to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and have us
    love him for it anyway." This self-serving testimony is no evidence of
    anything. The natural follow-up question for Gladwell to have asked
    would have been whether, when Ekman saw the videotape of Clinton's
    deposition during the run-up to his impeachment, he realized that
    Clinton was lying. He didn't ask that question. Nor does he mention
    the flaws that critics have found in Ekman's work.

    As with Gladwell's other tales, the Ekman story is not actually about
    the strengths and the weaknesses of rapid cognition. It took Ekman
    years to construct his Facial Action Coding System, which Gladwell
    tells us fills a five-hundred-page binder. Now, it is perfectly true
    that we can often infer a person's feelings, intentions, and other
    mental dispositions from a glance at his face. But people are as
    skillful at concealing their feelings and intentions as they are at
    reading them in others--hence the need for the FACS, which is itself a
    product of articulate thinking.

    So Gladwell should not have been surprised by the results of an
    experiment to test alternative methods of discovering certain personal
    characteristics of college kids, such as emotional stability. One
    method was to ask the person's best friends; another was to ask
    strangers to peek inside the person's room. The latter method proved
    superior. People conceal as well as reveal themselves in their
    interactions with their friends. In arranging their rooms, they are
    less likely to be trying to make an impression, so the stranger will
    not be fooled by prior interactions with the person whose room it is.
    The better method happened to be the quicker one. But it wasn't better
    because it was quicker.

    R emember JFCOM? In 2002, it conducted a war game called "Millennium
    Challenge" in anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As commander
    of the "Red Team" (the adversary in a war game), JFCOM chose a retired
    Marine general named Paul Van Riper. Oddly, Gladwell never mentions
    that Van Riper was a general. This omission, I think, is owed to
    Gladwell's practice of presenting everyone who gets the psychology
    right as an enemy of the establishment, and it is hard to think of a
    general in that light, though in fact Van Riper is something of a

    The Blue Team was equipped with an elaborate computerized
    decision-making tool called "Operational Net Assessment." Van Riper
    beat the Blue Team in the war game using low-tech, commonsense
    tactics: when the Blue Team knocked out the Red Team's electronic
    communications, for example, he used couriers on motorcycles to
    deliver messages. Was Van Riper's strategy a triumph of rapid
    cognition, as Gladwell portrays it? Operational Net Assessment was and
    is an experimental program for integrating military intelligence from
    all sources in order to dispel the "fog of war." The military is
    continuing to work on it. That Van Riper beat it two years ago is no
    more surprising than that chess champions easily beat the earliest
    chess-playing computers: today, in a triumph of articulate "thinking"
    over intuition, it is the computers that are the champs.

    Gladwell also discusses alternative approaches in dating. (The
    procession of his anecdotes here becomes dizzying.) One is to make a
    list of the characteristics one desires in a date and then go looking
    for possible dates that fit the characteristics. The other, which
    experiments reveal, plausibly, to be superior, is to date a variety of
    people until you find someone with whom you click. The distinction is
    not between articulate thinking and intuitive thinking, but between
    deduction and induction. If you have never dated, you will not have a
    good idea of what you are looking for. As you date, you will acquire a
    better idea, and eventually you will be able to construct a useful
    checklist of characteristics. So this is yet another little tale that
    doesn't fit the ostensible subject of his book. Gladwell does not
    discuss "love at first sight," which would be a good illustration of
    the unreliability of rapid cognition.

    In discussing racial discrimination, Gladwell distinguishes between
    "unconscious attitudes" and "conscious attitudes. That is what we
    choose to believe." But beliefs are not chosen. You might think it
    very nice to believe in the immortality of the soul, but you could not
    will yourself (at least if you are intellectually honest) to believe
    it. Elsewhere he remarks of someone that when he is excited "his eyes
    light up and open even wider." But eyes don't light up; it is only by
    opening them wider that one conveys a sense of excitement. The
    metaphor of eyes lighting up is harmless, but one is surprised to find
    it being used by a writer who is at pains to explain exactly how we
    read intentions in facial expressions--and it is not by observing
    ocular flashes.

    T his book also succumbs to the fallacy that people with good ideas
    must be good people. Everyone in the book who gets psychology right is
    not only or mainly a bright person, he is also a noble human being; so
    there is much emphasis, Kerry-like, on Van Riper's combat performance
    in the Vietnam War, without explicitly mentioning that he went on to
    become a lieutenant-general. Such pratfalls, together with the
    inaptness of the stories that constitute the entirety of the book,
    make me wonder how far Gladwell has actually delved into the
    literatures that bear on his subject, which is not a new one. These
    include a philosophical literature illustrated by the work of Michael
    Polanyi on tacit knowledge and on "know how" versus "know that"; a
    psychological literature on cognitive capabilities and distortions; a
    literature in both philosophy and psychology that explores the
    cognitive role of the emotions; a literature in evolutionary biology
    that relates some of these distortions to conditions in the "ancestral
    environment" (the environment in which the human brain reached
    approximately its current level of development); a psychiatric
    literature on autism and other cognitive disturbances; an economic
    literature on the costs of acquiring and absorbing information; a
    literature at the intersection of philosophy, statistics, and
    economics that explores the rationality of basing decisions on
    subjective estimates of probability (Bayes's Theorem); and a
    literature in neuroscience that relates cognitive and emotional states
    to specific parts of and neuronal activities in the brain.

    Taken together, these literatures demonstrate the importance of
    unconscious cognition, but their findings are obscured rather than
    elucidated by Gladwell's parade of poorly understood yarns. He wants
    to tell stories rather than to analyze a phenomenon. He tells them
    well enough, if you can stand the style. (Blink is written like a book
    intended for people who do not read books.) And there are interesting
    and even illuminating facts scattered here and there, such as the
    blindfold "sip" test that led Coca-Cola into the disastrous error of
    changing the formula for Coke so that it would taste more like Pepsi.
    As Gladwell explains, people do not decide what food or beverage to
    buy solely on the basis of taste, let alone taste in the artificial
    setting of a blindfold test; the taste of a food or a drink is
    influenced by its visual properties. So that was a case in which less
    information really was less, and not more. And of course he is right
    that we may drown in information, so that to know less about a
    situation may sometimes be to know more about it. It is a lesson he
    should have taken to heart.

    [31]Richard A. Posner is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals
    for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of
    Chicago Law School.


   31. http://www.tnr.com/showBio.mhtml?pid=62

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