Cut to the Quick

In the mid-1980s, Los Angeles' Getty Museum was on the cusp of acquiring an ancient Greek statue. Using stereo-microscopes, scientists pronounced it the real deal. And without anything more than a cold stare, art experts the world over determined it was a fraud. The controversy over its authenticity, muddied by inconsistencies in documentation, has raged for years. How could a bunch of art-history wonks instantly see something so contrary to science? How could they be right when the evidence says otherwise? Answering such questions is at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

As a staff writer for some obscure provincial 'zine called The New Yorker, Gladwell explores counterintuitive phenomena in business, art and science. "Counterintuitive stories are of interest to people and to journalists in particular," Gladwell says. "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."

Gladwell's last book, The Tipping Point, showed how the tiniest environmental factors can explain seismic shifts in everything from crime rates to fashion trends. In Blink, he sweats the small stuff again through our quickest, unconscious thoughts. Take the work of Dr. John Gottman, who has been analyzing the conversations of married couples for nearly two decades. By watching 15 minutes of videotaped discussion, Gottman can predict whether a couple will be married 15 years later. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. He's become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he's concluded marriages hinge on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money and those meddling in-laws.)

Gladwell also notes that for all its efficacy, rapid cognition can go awry. That's because our adaptive unconscious tends to reject everything that's not rooted in our experience. "This is a book about taking snap judgments seriously," Gladwell says. "It's not about how great snap decisions are. It's about how they can be wildly wrong and right and knowing what the difference is." Who knew "thinking without thinking" would require so much thought?

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John Dicker