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Back to Basics

Since the very first posts, we have analyzed Gladwell’s PURPOSE in writing Blink with some mention of other contributing parts of the writing situation: AUTHOR (credibility and position) and AUDIENCE.  The writing situation is discussed at greater length in  Chapter 5 beginning on page 43 in the required first year writing handbook, The Every Day Writer by Andrea A. Lundsford.  Since all parts of a writing situation contribute to the success of the work, let’s look at the other two a little more.

1.)   I think we all can agree the audience Gladwell addresses is broad.  Almost anyone can go to a local bookstore or get on and order a copy of his book in print or even for their Kindle.  The subject of decision making is a pretty universal topic and relates to pretty much everyone.  Because his audience is not an audience that can easily be characterized it would be considered a multiple audience rather than a simple audience.  He therefore has to appeal to a wide range of people with differing opinions, backgrounds, understanding, abilities, and experiences.  Considering this kind of audience one Lundsford calls a “whole audience”, how effective is Gladwell’s appeal?  Which examples, anecdotes, studies, and cultural references are most effective to you as a member of his multiple or whole audience and which ones are least effective, possibly considering some of the following:  Warren Harding, Kenna, the Getty kouros, Vic Braden and the tennis serve, the Millennium Challenge, Cook County Hospital, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the Aeron chair, the Gottman experiments, and the Pepsi Challenge.

2.)   Who is Gladwell and why is this important?  For example, Gladwell is a best selling author, a journalist, and a staff writer for The New Yorker.  He has written other well received books, four New York Times best sellers in fact, and perhaps most notably, The Tipping Point (2000).  Gladwell is NOT a scientist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a research marketer, a food expert, a military expert, or a police officer.  How credible is Gladwell?  Try to use specifics to support your response.

Keep in mind, as I mentioned in my last post, there is room for disagreement here, but there are no right or wrong answers.


Problem Solving

Some of the most important skills you will be asked to use in your classes and in the university are your problem solving skills. Some of our problem solving skills are inherent. I think this is worth celebrating. Our minds are able to size things up in an instant to help us make decisions. We are actually built and programmed that way and it is amazing. Gladwell didn’t discover these facts but he does us a service in illuminating them, in taking them out of the specialized, scientific community and into the public sphere where we all have access to the ideas.

In particular Gladwell points to success in people who are “very good at what they do and all of whom owe their success, at least in part, to the steps they have taken to shape and manage and educate their unconscious reactions” (16). One of the ways that we problem solve is through association. In chapter three Gladwell says “We make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us” (77). We have discussed here how those associations can be problematic because they are subject to our experiences and our biases but what about when they are useful to us? What does it take to be a good problem solver?

In the previous post many of you discussed how you associated math with being difficult. More so, many of you associated your own evaluation of yourself based on what a teacher told you or led you to believe about yourself. Surely you will bring some of those associations with you but also you have the opportunity to makes new ones. If pairing is a way of synthesizing information together, how do we learn to play with it a little bit? When we break some of our associative powers apart and also when we rebuild new pairing skills, we learn something. Below is a link to a song that does just that–makes associations with some pairs of things. What if we changed the lyrics to the song to reflect new pairings?

What are some things you associate together in your learning? What if you made a list and then looked at new possible associations? For example what do you pair with reading, writing, math, history, dorm rooms, cafeterias, college? If math is scary, difficult or boring, what if we instead began to pair it with words like challenging, rewarding or exciting? Can you think of examples from your own life?


We’ve spent the past few months talking about rapid cognition, first impressions, and the dangers – and benefits – they can uncover.  One area of Gladwell’s book that really spoke to me was in the final chapter, the section entitled “Small Miracles.”

Gladwell writes, “We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.  Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious,” (252).  The emphasis placed on that passage is mine.

To piggy-back on what Professor Whittingham wrote about regarding racial bias, I want to talk about the subtle influences that have biased me, and have you consider some of the influences that have biased you.  I want to go beyond looking at the societal pressures that have influenced us – race, class, gender, etc. – because they are discussed fairly frequently.  I want to reflect that view inward, to you individually.

An example:  I have always said that I am not good at math.  No big surprise, there – I DO teach English, after all.   But that perceived math deficiency was something I struggled with for most of my life.  Then one day, I went to an interview where I had to take a math test.  I dreaded every minute of that exam.  During the actual conversation portion of the interview, the Human Resources Director asked, “So, what is your greatest weakness?”  The answer was easy.  I said immediately, “Math.  I’m terrible at math.”  She looked confused and I soon discovered why.  I had scored a 99% on the math test.  I was stunned!

It’s been an experience that has stuck with me for years, but after reading Blink, it became clear to me why I thought the way I did.  I had relied on my first impressions of myself.  I had to have math tutors all through middle school; I was placed in remedial math classes in high school.  I had been “trained” to think I was bad at it – I undermined myself for decades because someone once said to me, “You’re not good at math.”

Take a moment now to turn your consideration inward.  What is your first impression of YOU?  What experiences (both internal and external) have given you the impression you have of yourself?  How accurately do you see yourself?

Agreeing to Disagree (at least sometimes)

In any academic conversation there is room to raise questions, disagree, and debate as long as it’s done respectfully, and you try to remain as informed and open as possible.  Although Blink has often been identified as a “good conversation starter” in previous posts, it is interesting how much agreement there has been about the various topics and examples.   With that in mind, I would like to revisit one of the more complicated and possibly more divisive examples in the book covered in Chapter 6: the shooting of Amadou Diallo.

I remember clearly when this incident happened; perhaps I remember it so well because I’m from New York or maybe because in 1999 when it occurred, I, like Diallo, was twenty-two.  I would graduate from college that year and was very involved in social justice and racial justice as I still am today.  I remember when Bruce Springsteen first performed his song “American Skin- 41 Shots” in honor of Diallo and how controversial it was, even prompting a proposed boycott of his concerts and music by police officers and criticism from then mayor Rudy Giuliani.  The following are links to the full lyrics from the Official Bruce Springsteen Website and a video clip of Springsteen performing the song in New York City in 2000:

Now, looking back more than ten years later, the incident seems much more complex than I had originally perceived it to be.  I can see Gladwell’s point when he states the shooting “falls into a kind of gray area, the middle ground between deliberate and accidental” (197).

There are certain things that might make this example more divisive than others:

1.) The situation regardless of whether you see it as an accident, an example of poor decision making, or a racially charged murder led to an innocent man losing his life.  A loss of life, rightfully so, brings up emotion that makes it difficult for someone evaluating the police officers’ actions to be objective.

2.) Diallo was black and an immigrant.

3.) Police officers hold a position of power.  When a person in power makes a bad decision the consequences tend to be greater, so they tend to be held to a higher standard.

4.) There is also a lot of context one must consider when evaluating this example of decision-making.  It’s almost impossible to look at the example alone without considering different scenarios that could have played out and past history.  A police officer or officers encountering a suspicious person, acting suspiciously, in an area where a lot of crime occurs, and that person actually turning out to have a weapon or be engaging in some kind of illegal activity, is certainly not unprecedented.  A very recent case, occurring only last week on August 2nd, involved the death of two police officers from Rapid City, South Dakota, Nick Armstrong and J. Ryan McCandless.  The scenario played out somewhat similarly to the Diallo case, at least in the beginning, when Officer Armstrong, Officer  McCandless, and another officer approached and questioned four suspicious subjects at an intersection when one of the subjects pulled out a concealed gun and shot all three officers with only one surviving.

What is your take on the Diallo shooting itself and/or Gladwell’s choice to include it in a book about decision making?

Navigation Systems

It appears that we have two ways of thinking effectively. Or at least that is what Gladwell seems to argue. We have the thin-slice which you all know about by now and we have the information gathering, rational brain that collects evidence and makes a thoughtful, weighted decision. In chapter four, Gladwell discusses the system devised by Dr. Brendan Reilly to use the thin-slice in a rational, effective way. He thereby combined the two. He made the process systematic and able to be replicated by physicians everywhere. Reilly’s friend describes him as someone who is “always exploring different topics whether it’s philosophy or Scottish poetry or the history of medicine” (133). Clearly this is a person who strives for and succeeds at looking at the big picture.

I think that is something the previous two posts address as well. How are you, as new students, going to balance the details with the essentials, whether they be sleep, social time or studying. So, what is the big picture for you? What system do you use currently to create this balance between slow, rationally made decisions and the snap judgments you make to survive? Do you already know you need to hone those skills or to build them up? Number four of our study guide points to the idea of students being empowered to make decisions. How do you define what it means to be empowered and what kinds of decisions aid you in that pursuit? Specifically, how do you relate to Reilly’s story? More importantly, why do you think Gladwell tells the story of Reilly in the way that he does?

Structuring the Spontaneous

Part of Malcolm Gladwell’s text discusses the idea of spontaneity (meaning:  coming from a natural impulse; without effort or premeditation; unplanned) and how even the most spontaneous decisions can be shaped and managed by experience.

He offers the case study of Paul Van Riper, a high-ranking military commander tasked with playing the role of rogue militant leader of the Red Team, an opposing force participating in the war game scenario Millennium Challenge.  Despite his impressive military history and years of government training, Van Riper chose to forego all of that training as he led his group of insurgents against an overwhelming opposing force.  Much to everyone’s surprise, his decision was a good one; he was successful and vanquished the Blue Team, leaving sixteen Blue Team ships at the bottom of the Persian Gulf (110).

How did that happen?  How could a military commander win by essentially forgetting all of the things he had learned over the course of his career?

After some reflection and analysis, it was determined that, quite simply, Van Riper’s spontaneous reactions to the Millenium Challenge caught the opponent by surprise.  Van Riper stated, “The first thing I told our staff is that we could be in command and out of control” (118).   He essentially predicted what the other side was expecting of his team and made sure to react in a way that was counterintuitive to his military training.   His approach was a remarkable success.

My question to you is this:  How does that scenario relate to your own college experience?

As you begin your freshman year, you will find yourself placed in situations that will challenge your previous years of academic training.  You will be placed in groups for group projects with complete strangers; you will be asked to balance multiple classes with conflicting deadlines; you will be asked to prep for several major exams, likely to be delivered in the same week (or even on the same day!).

How will you be out of control and yet still remain in charge enough to overcome the challenges placed before you?   What does Gladwell say about achieving that balance?

A Moment of Reflection

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the blogging window for the Summer Reading Project.  As always, summer seems to be flying by!  I thought this might be a good time to briefly step back from the content of the book and revisit two of the project goals, included in your Reading Guide, as a way to begin to reflect and evaluate the merits of the project itself, especially now that many of you have finished the book and have started to participate in the discussions.  As some of you will find in my Critical Writing and Reading I sections this fall, it is kind of my thing to check in, so is everyone hydrated, is everyone awake, is everyone feeling comfortable enough to proceed, is everyone learning something?  Okay then, moving on, the two goals I would like to highlight in this reflection are #2 and #5.

From the Summer Reading Project Guide:

2.) Students are introduced to learning communities.

5.) Students learn how to communicate with faculty/staff/peers.

I certainly hope that Blink and your introduction to this first “learning community” have added to your overall summer experience so far, and of course helped to prepare you for the fall, but I would like to hear from you about connections you have made between the reading/project and your experiences (past, present, and projected future).  Have you felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions with both faculty and other students?  Have there been any obstacles, concerns, or questions that have prevented you from participating?  Is there anything you have learned, not so much from the book directly, but from your participation in this project?  More specifically, is there anything you have learned from others participating?  To bring the book back into it, are there aspects of this book, in particular, that make it easier to share and develop conversations?

Behind the Curtain of Race and Gender

Late this summer, I was sitting at a local music venue and pub having a burger with a girlfriend when she got up to talk to an older gentlemen at the next table. She waved me over and introduced me to Bill Osborne, a composer. After a few minutes of conversation I could clearly tell this was a special man who was sensitive, thoughtful and kind—or at least I thin-sliced him that way. Soon enough his wife Abbie came up in conversation. She was in Germany at the time, playing in an orchestra there and it was apparent from the tone in his voice that he missed her very much. He had this adoring look in his eye when her name was mentioned.

So, you can imagine my surprise while reading Blink to have Gladwell use the example of Abbie Conant’s story as a lesson on how our stereotyping brain mechanism has real effects in our working and private lives (245-54). The example of Conant and her struggle comes in the conclusion of the book where Gladwell lays out his final argument. Many previous examples are interesting or thought provoking. But, with the exception of the “Seven Seconds in the Bronx” passage (chapter six), for me as a reader, few really hit home in a “real world” sense in the way Conant’s story does. As one student pointed out in my previous post “Taming the Thin-Slice,” women and minorities fall under the wheel of dangerous assumptions most frequently.

The Conant example is so blatant because the audition process was done “blind” (so to speak) and then the hierarchy of the orchestra committee rebelled against their own instincts in favor of their assumptions and prejudices. In a sense, they chose to not rely on their instincts but rather to re-affirm their culturally biased snap-judgments. Here, two thin-slices came into conflict with one another and the fall out was drastic. As Gladwell mentions, it took “eight years, (and) she was reinstated as first trombone.” In that eight years she was subjected to the tests, the challenges and the legal battles that would finally enable her to do the job she was already highly qualified for. Ultimately it would take thirteen years before she was able to do her job and receive equal pay for it (248).

As the previous two posts by Professors Smith and Whittingham address, there is a relationship between using the intelligence of our brains when they thin-slice and the intelligence that also comes from gathering information. But, how do we define this relationship? How do we use the combination effectively? How do learn to make the distinction rationally and consciously like the car salesman? (88-96).

Many would argue that race and gender continue to be major factors of prejudice in society, workplaces and academic settings. Conant chose to turn her struggle into a movement, a way for the music community to recognize its flaws and get more women and minorities playing. You can see her website here:

Your job: Read one of the articles posted on Conant’s site addressing the topic of equality and respond/relate it to your thoughts on Gladwell’s interpretation. Do you think significant enough changes have been made in the music community? How large a role do you see race and gender playing in the workplace, social settings or schools? Or, do you even agree that race and gender play a significant role in our decision making process when it comes to other people?

An Old Joke

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  A tourist is visiting New York City.  He walks up to a guy on the street and asks, “Excuse me, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The other guy replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

It’s an old joke, but there is some truth to it, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell.  Take a look at the following video on Outliers, another Gladwell work, from the London Business Forum.



Essentially, Gladwell says that the genius we admire is attainable to all of us if we only practice enough.  So consider those who you consider genius in their respective fields – Lennon & McCartney and the Beatles, Timmy Thomas and the Boston Bruins, Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, the classmate who gets straight A’s in his/her classes, etc.

Your first impression (your first Blink) is that they must come by that talent naturally, but is that really true?  How much is natural talent?  And how much is a result of practice?

Gladwell says that there is a long road of struggle and practice that brought these folks to their respective levels of excellence.  And that road is available to all of us.  Are you willing to take that road to get to where you want to go?

To mull, or not to mull: that is the question

Again this week, I would like to continue to build connections and keep conversations going, and in a way my contribution today is related to both Professor Smith’s and Professor Cox’s last posts.  Gladwell and his book are not without critics as previously mentioned.  What he asserts about thin-slicing, his sources, and the way he pulls it all together can be examined with a critical eye, and while some agree, at least for the most part, with what he has to tell us, others do not.  Obviously, the book resonates with a large percentage of readers, or it would not have become so popular, but this popularity most likely has caused even closer examination.

There are multiple links to reviews I could include here, but in the interest of keeping my posts brief and to encourage even more response from you, I would like to include just the following for now:

A friend told me about a book that is intended to be a direct response to Blink entitled Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye by Michael R. LeGault.  Like Gladwell, LeGault is not a scientist or psychologist and has primarily a journalistic background, so he also relies on other people’s research and real life examples, such as the response to Hurricane Katrina, to support his conclusion that we need more critical thinking rather than less.  Although I do plan to read this book, maybe in between grading your papers this fall, I admit I have not read it yet.  However, from what I have read about it, it seems to not so much completely debunk the conclusions found in Blink, but promote the idea that we need to use both thin-slicing and traditional reasoning to make the best decisions possible.  As someone who tends to overanalyze everything, with both positive and negative results, this got me thinking about whether there are some situations when you need to really spend time mulling things over, other situations when you need to rely on snap judgment, and yet another set of circumstances that warrant both.  Even Gladwell writes in his Afterword: “I think that the task of figuring out how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is one of the great challenges of our time” (269).  In other words, they both can be helpful, and they both can lead us astray, so if we can extract and combine”the best” of both, could this combination lead to the best decision making?

Your tasks:

1.) Look up additional reviews, criticism, and responses to Blink.  Post links (from credible sources) and respond to this criticism.

2.) Think about and then share some examples of situations when a decision you made worked out well or did not work out well, and then trace it back to whether it was something you decided based more on instinct or something you thought about at great length.