Malcolm Gladwell, Blink

A young black man, new to America, stands on his front steps in New York City. It's hot, midnight in summer, so he's come out for some air. His door clicked locked behind him when he came out a few minutes ago, but not to worry - he has his keys.

A car pulls up. Four men jump out. All white. All with guns drawn. One shouts something at him. The man stares for a second, jumps back into the vestibule to open his door. The four white men run at him; the door won't open; he pulls out his wallet, holds it out so they won't attack him to get it. Gunfire.

Seven seconds after these four undercover NYPD officers stopped their unmarked car to see if this young black man was a robber who'd been operating in the neighborhood, Amadou Diallo is dead, shot forty-one times.

Malcolm Gladwell uses the Diallo case as a reference point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking for how people function in emergency situations. There are several other reference points for different aspects of "thin-slicing," all of them compelling, but apart from Diallo the most interesting is Paul Van Riper. In 2002, Van Riper defeated the entire US Armed Forces in a Persian Gulf war-games exercise -- playing the role of a rogue dictator who, among other things, empowered his troops to operate more like guerrillas. (Read the book for more detail on THAT little gem!)

Blink is a great read, and it works really well as an extended essay of the type he writes so well for the New Yorker, but I didn't expect something observational: with a subtitle like this one,  I expected something programmatic, absolute, maybe even helpful. The Afterword written for this edition (along with the Book Club section - oh, help, we're predictable!) moves that direction, because Gladwell found himself getting bombarded with questions along the lines of "So what do we do now that we know this stuff?"

The gist is that with complex decisions, we're generally better off if we trust our unconscious; with simple decisions, we're better off if we analyze the options. If we don't trust our unconscious, we're paralyzed like the US military against Paul Van Riper. But if we don't find a way to train our unconscious properly, though, we end up screwing up like the NYPD officers who shot Diallo so many time so quickly before actually engaging with him.

Which isn't a small conclusion, and I can see all kinds of ways to use it for The Forces of Good, but I liked the chattiness of this book. Gladwell does conversational really, really well. The subtitle of this book, to me, is a very bad sign, because when I first saw this book in a bookstore, my own thin-slicing radar beeped a neon "Self-Help Book! Flee!" And I read enough that my book-cover radar is pretty good, so I hope Gladwell retains enough control over his own publishing to do the books he's most equipped for -- and to make his books look like what they are, rather than like something that might traditionally sell better.


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