Think Fast

In the mid-1980s, L.A.'s Getty Museum was on the cusp of acquiring an ancient Greek kouros statue. Using stereomicroscopes, scientists certified the rare statue as authentic. And without anything more than a cold stare, art experts the world over knew it was a fraud.

The controversy raged for years until the Getty's lawyers determined through inconsistencies in its documentation that the kouros was all kinds of Milli Vanilli.

So how can a bunch of art-history wonks instantly see something trained scientists can't? How can they be right when the hard evidence proves otherwise? Such questions lie at the heart of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, who makes an appearance at Tempe's Changing Hands Bookstore on Monday, January 24.

As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell writes about counterintuitive phenomena in science, business and the arts. He's explored the disconnect between SUVs' high-above-the-road illusion of safety and their tendency to flip over. More recently, he's contested the notion that plagiarism is always and everywhere a form of intellectual theft.

"Counterintuitive stories are of interest to people, and to journalists in particular," Gladwell explains. "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 effort, The Tipping Point, showed how the tiniest environmental changes can explain seismic shifts in everything from New York's crime rate to fashion trends. In Blink, he sweats the small stuff all over again by examining our quickest, unconscious thoughts. Known as "thin slicing," these decisions are a byproduct of our unconscious mind and its ability to perform complex analysis at warp speed based only on limited patterns of experience. It's part of an emerging field in psychology devoted to the "adaptive unconscious," the CPU-like part of our brains responsible for quick decisions.

One memorable example involves Dr. John Gottman, a University of Washington psychologist who's been analyzing the conversations of married couples for almost two decades. Inside his Seattle-based "love lab," the professor watches 15 minutes of videotaped discussion and can then predict whether a couple will be married 15 years later. His accuracy rate is a staggering 90 percent. In fact, Gottman has become so adept at reading the nuances of emotional communication that he's concluded that marriages frequently hinge on the prevalence of a single emotion: contempt. (So much for sex, money and those meddling in-laws.)

For all its efficacy, rapid cognition can go awry. That's because of its tendency to reject all things that fall beyond the cubbyholes of our experience. Whether it's an innovative piece of furniture, an avant-garde musician, even a sitcom that tries something new, our adaptive unconscious tends to "thin slice" it into oblivion.

"When do you know that this kind of rapid cognition is helpful and when it's not? That's the tricky question. . . . All you can do is take steps that will improve your chances of being right," Gladwell says. "This is a book about taking snap judgments seriously. 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."

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John Dicker