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‘Blink’ tries to teach us how to trust our instincts

Marybeth Jacobson Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Too much information can be a burden, as anyone who’s waded through a seemingly endless list of e-mails after a vacation can attest.

In “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell proposes that some of this extraneous information is self-inflicted – taken in as a result of our societal conditioning to gather as much information as possible before making a decision. We’re taught not to judge a book by its cover, to look before we leap, that haste makes waste.

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it,” he writes. “We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation.”

That’s not the case, he tells us, before guiding us on a tour of examples from the worlds of psychology, business, politics, the military, the arts, entertainment, sports, law enforcement and medicine.

Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has visited the psychology/self-help landscape before with “The Tipping Point,” a 2002 best seller subtitled “How Little Things Make a Big Difference.”

Gladwell again sweats the small stuff here, telling us that ” ‘Blink’ is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives – with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress.”

He proposes to teach us how to determine when to trust our instincts and how to educate and control our snap judgments. His examples are fascinating and his research is far-reaching. But they don’t always serve to support his premise. In fact, they may contribute to information overload that merely muddles the issue.

Gladwell is particularly fond of going off on tangents, at times losing the thread. For example, in the midst of analyzing the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four police officers in the Bronx in 1999 he gives us an extensive discourse on autism and how it creates “mind-blindness,” a condition Gladwell finds partly to blame in the Diallo tragedy.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking example Gladwell cites to make his case against too much information is that of Millennium Challenge ‘02, a war game – he calls it “a full dress rehearsal for war” – conducted by the Pentagon before the invasion of Iraq.

On one side was a rogue military commander, virulently anti-American, with a strong religious and ethnic power base in the Persian Gulf. On the other was a high-tech military superpower equipped with an abundance of information.

Playing the rogue commander was Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine whose service in Vietnam had earned him the respect of his men and a reputation as a gunslinger. When, in the war game, Van Riper behaved as rogue commanders do – fighting back, catching his opponent off guard, sinking 16 ships and killing 20,000 troops – officials running Millennium Challenge voided Van Riper’s actions and scripted a victory for the superpower team.

One can only wonder what might be happening in Iraq right now if they’d heeded the lessons of Millennium Challenge. They had plenty of information.

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