When Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point five years ago, he had no idea what a sensation it would be. It was so difficult to classify that he wasn’t even sure where it would be put in bookshops. Yet his guide to the spread of ideas, trends and fads went on to become a global bestseller, selling more than 800,000 copies. It helped to launch the field of viral marketing and has been described as one of those rare books that changes the way you think. So it is no surprise that his new book – Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – has been a bestseller on Amazon for months, even though it is not due to be published until next week.
Gladwell has suggested we meet in Savoy, a chic Mediterranean-style restaurant in SoHo, downtown Manhattan, among the fashionable boutiques and artists’ lofts. He wrote much of Blink here, on leave from The New Yorker magazine, where he is a staff writer and thinker-at-large, renowned for thought-provoking essays on subjects as diverse as plagiarism, drug prices and the science of tomato sauce.
Savoy is a warm respite from the driving rain outside, and the upstairs restaurant is quiet – just a few couples and some businessmen. Minutes after the agreed meeting time, Gladwell slips into the seat opposite, greets me warmly and apologises for his late arrival. “I normally eat the burgers here, which are excellent,” he says. “But I was just in Scotland where I had some great sausages.” It takes me longer to choose grilled spiced lamb kebab with cucumber salad and yoghurt vinaigrette on whole wheat flatbread from the Savoy’s richly annotated menu.
Gladwell is quietly spoken and casually dressed in T-shirt and V-neck jumper. My first impression is of a young academic, but with an ineffable air of coolness, an image enhanced perhaps by his Jimi Hendrix Afro hairstyle. (His mother is Jamaican; his father English.)
He looks different from the press photos I have seen. His hair is longer and herein lies a tale, and the genesis of Blink. Gladwell says his life started to change “in many small ways” when he decided to let his hair grow a few years ago: he started to get picked up for speeding, he was taken out of the line at airports; he was even mistaken by the police for a rapist. “I was amazed at the impact of such a small change. It got me thinking about snap judgments. How powerful they are when they are right and how dangerous when wrong,” he says.
The waitress takes our order. Gladwell dispenses with a starter and wine, and I follow suit.
You could say Blink is about trusting your intuition, though Gladwell won’t. “I hate that word, it’s so overloaded – it’s a way of demeaning this process, saying it’s all emotional. I really want people to take snap judgments seriously. Just because you can’t explain something doesn’t obliterate its legitimacy,” he says, twisting a lock of wiry hair around his finger.
Blink is what Gladwell calls an “intellectual adventure story” in the spirit of The Tipping Point. However, instead of big theories about social dynamics, Gladwell has turned his attention to the first couple of seconds in which we make decisions, what he variously dubs “rapid cognition” or “thin slicing”. His thesis is this: quick decisions based on first impressions are often much better than those made after lengthy analysis; less information can be better than more; or simply: sometimes the best way to judge a book is by its cover. (Although he also shows how people can make extraordinarily bad, tragic, snap decisions.)
Gladwell introduces an array of characters who excel at “rapid cognition” in different contexts. As in The Tipping Point, he draws stories from a wide range of domains: food tasting, car sales, war games, chair design, even speed-dating. I ask him where he gets his ideas. “People tell me a lot. And I root aimlessly around libraries. Everything in Blink comes from a different place, comes out of some idiosyncratic encounters with a book or someone who told me a story,” he says, making it seem deceptively easy.
I ask whether it was difficult to write Blink following the huge success of The Tipping Point. “No, not at all. The success of The Tipping Point was totally unexpected. It was a gift. It was like a bolt of lightning,” he says. “I will accept whatever fate this book grants me. Personally, I feel it is a more rigorous book. I don’t know whether that makes the book better or worse – but as a writer it’s a little bit more satisfying.
”I realise, however, that I have fallen completely into the rock band problem – a very popular first album, then a second album where they ‘want to do something more interesting’ but it turns out to be much worse,” he says with a wry smile.
He dubs this “the Radiohead problem”. Gladwell has a gift at coining sticky catchphrases to describe and present his ideas – such as the “tipping point” itself. Blink is full of them: the Warren Harding Error, the Storytelling Problem, the Perils of Introspection – it is one reason why he is unlikely to suffer from the “Radiohead problem”.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided people into foxes, who know many little things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing and Gladwell, unsurprisingly, identifies himself as a fox. He believes his eclecticism and curiosity is due in part to his upbringing. Although he grew up in Canada, he is English. “The best kind of English person,” he jokes. “One who has left.” (His parents moved to Canada in the late 1960s to escape the racial climate in Britain at the time.)
”There is something about being an immigrant that allows you to explore your surroundings with enthusiasm, without any fetters or allegiance. And my parents are very curious and open-minded people, they encouraged this kind of ethnicity.”
The conversation turns to marketing, a subject close to Gladwell’s heart. In Blink, he reveals an astonishing fact: simply by asking someone to explain their personal preferences, their preferences change. People are not good at expressing what they like, so when asked to choose something new, that they don’t understand, they opt for the familiar. This is particularly true when products are experienced briefly, divorced from their context. Gladwell says this is why focus groups, the bedrock of marketing research, don’t work, particularly when it comes to new or radical ideas. “Most people who use focus groups hate them. Yet everyone participates in this fiction to get the answer they want. We have inadvertently created a culture of conservatism in large corporations. We don’t… realise we are doing it, so that’s a significant cost,” he says.
The proprietor arrives at our table and greets Gladwell warmly. “I am being interviewed. I have turned your restaurant into a place of business,” he jokes.
One of the most provocative sections of Blink concerns a military simulation undertaken by the US military in 2002. Gladwell tells how a marine officer, Paul van Riper, recruited to play a rogue military leader in the Gulf in the war game, fought US forces that were equipped with the most comprehensive and developed information systems known to man. Using a low-technology approach, combined with the element of surprise, he won.
”One of the themes here is the unwarranted overconfidence that comes from thinking you have all the information,” he says. “In Blink, I quote the study where doctors are given various kinds of information about a patient.
”And you discover that there is no difference in the accuracy of the diagnoses whether they receive two pages, five pages or 10 pages of information. The only thing that is different is the confidence in these judgments.
”There is this myth that the US military did no planning. They did do planning. It’s just that the planning was preposterous. They were just massively overconfident, they knew that country, they had been there 10 years before, they thought they knew Saddam Hussein, they thought that they had all the pieces,” he says wiping his plate clean with some bread.
Although Gladwell has been doing most of the talking, he finishes eating well before me. After we order coffees and dessert, the conversation drifts over a broad terrain: twins, Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris (of The Fog of War fame), the recent election (on which he is scrupulously neutral). Gladwell is innately inquisitive, always voluble, but also a very good listener.
Before we leave, I want to talk about the subject of priming, possibly one of the most fascinating ideas in the book. In Blink, Gladwell reveals how people’s behaviour can be powerfully influenced by their frame of mind. “Prime” students in a quiz to think of professors and they perform better; prime them to think of soccer hooligans and their performance deteriorates. Ask black people to fill in their race in a questionnaire and they achieve lower test scores. Gladwell paints a picture of a mutable, highly malleable personality, under the influence of unconscious forces that are poorly understood. It’s radical stuff, I suggest.
”While writing Blink I became profoundly sceptical of our ideas of personhood. I think that we have a set of highly specific idiosyncratic responses to specific situations but I no longer believe much in the idea of character,” he says. “It is radical, but that’s why it’s fun.”