May 2, 2016
The funny thing about Malcolm Gladwell is that everyone seems to enjoy reading him, but few remember many details of what he actually wrote. I had a conversation with a parent of one of my students not long ago about the overestimation of the importance of IQ, referencing some studies done by Lewis Terman. She listened with rapt attention and deep in thought. The information seemed new, original, and surprising to her. I mentioned that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in his book Outliers, to which she responded, "I read that book!" Apparently these things don't stick!
Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is one of Gladwell's many bestsellers. He seems to have an enduring interest in both psychology and in education, which means that he'll make several appearances on the podcast, even though he's "just a journalist". He seems to draw people in with his combination of Viking-quality storytelling and modern statistical and scientific thinking. It seems to me that his later books are more knowledge- and idea-rich, and his earlier ones are a bit more take-one-idea-as-far-as-you-can.
The idea in Blink is that some apparent thinking is done without conscious processing (although Gladwell puts it in much sexier terms). For example, art critics know whether something is a genuine Greek sculpture or not because they can *feel* it, and they often can't explain why. Their intuitions can be - tend to be, in fact - more accurate than careful and detailed analysis and background investigations. What's going on here?
If you've been paying attention to the podcast so far, you should see where this fits in with the themes we've been exploring. Several books so far have been concerned with something similar. Thinking, Fast and Slow is about cognitive biases, which are subconscious "wrong" thinking. The Power of Habit looked at how people can learn even when they can't form any long-term memories. "Picture yourself as a stereotypical male" dealt with stereotype threat, i.e. how people subconsciously fulfil stereotypes about groups they belong to.
Apart from the idea of subconscious thinking, Gladwell also discusses some cases where this thinking is accurate, and others where it is wrong, or even disastrous. Surprise surprise, experts tend to have valid intuitions, whereas novices shouldn't trust their gut feeling. This idea of the differences between experts and novices is one reason why we're covering this book now, as our next theme for the coming weeks will be the question "how do people get good at things?".
Enjoy the episode.