Bookends – Flyte and Malcolm Gladwell

January 14, 2012 non-fiction 1

Non-Project Non-Fiction

My on-the-side non-fiction reading this week included two books by Malcolm Gladwell, Blink and The Tipping Point.  Blink was well-written and accessible.  The author shares many engaging anecdotes to facilitate his discussion of when our split-second decisions serve us well and when they go wrong.  It’s not the most scientific book I’ve read (with less transparent support for the points the author makes than Click, for example) but does cite many scientific studies for those who care to delve more deeply into any specific claim.

There are three topics the author discusses which I found most interesting.  First, he describes a man who is able to predict with very high accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together after briefly observing their conversation.  This did not start out as something he could just do through split-second decision making.  Rather, he did a very detailed analysis of the emotions couples showed throughout a conversation.  Through this process, he learned that the greatest indicator of impending failure in a marriage was if either person showed contempt toward their significant other.  By training himself to focus on only this crucial detail, it became possible to assess a couples’ relationship very quickly.

The second topic also has to do with human interactions and was mostly interesting to me because of its connection to a TV show I watch, called Lie To Me.  Apparently, the show has some basis in fact!  A couple of scientists did do an analysis of human expressions.  They did identify a certain number of expressions we make and the combination of muscles we move to make each of these expressions.  And the did show that people make “microexpressions”, where they very briefly show their true feelings very plainly – even if their long-term expression may be an attempt to conceal those feelings.  A brief digression:  I think I probably enjoy Lie To Me for a combination of the reasons I enjoy House and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.  Like House, Lie To Me is the story of a brilliant specialist seeing things most people don’t.  And like the Law and Order spin-off, the most interesting part of the show is the analysis of human behavior.  So, if you like either of those, you should check out Lie To Me and let me know what you think 🙂

Finally, the third topic I enjoyed was that of our unconscious biases.  The author begins this story by presenting a test designed to show biases toward traditional gender roles.  First, readers are asked to put words having to do with men and work in one column and words having to do with women and family in a second.  Then the categories are mixed up, so women are paired with work and men are paired with family.  Studies have previously shown that people show a slight time delay on the second task, indicating that their prior association of men with work and women with family made the first task easier.  The really interesting thing though is that you can consciously change these biases.  For instance, I intentionally thought of stay-at-home mom’s when completing the first task to make it easier (and probably made the second task harder for myself too!).  But when I repeated the second task while imagining business women and my dad (who does work, but who I associate with my family), I was able to do the second task faster.  If you want to try it yourself, the author gives a website with lots of tests designed to show different unconscious biases.

The Tipping Point  was very similar to Blink in both writing style and the sort of information presented.  The author’s particular theory is that tipping points – sudden changes in behavior once a certain threshold is reached – are brought about by three things: a few key individuals who sell the ideas to their peers, the “stickiness” of whatever is being spread, and the environment in which transmission occurs.  This theory applies to everything from diseases to fashion trends and popular TV shows.  While I wouldn’t say he proves his point unequivocally or even in every case study he presents, it does certainly seem to be true in some cases (most provably so in the case of diseases).

To be fair, I think the fact that the author gives an explanation for the sudden decrease in NYC crime levels, different from that given by Steven Levitt in Freakonomics but equally plausible, made me a feel a little more skeptical about both their theories.  It made it quite clear that the facts in all of their anecdotes can be interpreted to suit many theories because the world is much too complex for one unique theory to explain everything.  However, like Blink, the book presented many though-provoking anecdotes and an interesting analysis of human behavior.  So I may be being unfairly harsh in my claims that the book is unscientific 🙂  As I mentioned earlier both books do provide citations for those interested in reading more scientific support for his claims.

I did appreciate that both books included some actionable lessons, such as the following:

  • gaining expertise allows us to both better exploit and understand our quick subconscious decisions
  • we can intentionally avoid or select subconscious stereotypes by choosing the messages we are exposed too
  • if you are trying to spread a message, the most important factors are focusing on the individuals others look to for advice; making the message memorable; and presenting the message in the right environment (specific, useful examples are given in the book)

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend these as serious scientific books, but they do make some points I found convincing.  I would also definitely recommend them for their fascinating anecdotes and thought-provoking commentary on human nature.

Current Fiction Readings

Last night, the boy and I finished Flyte!  I’m not sure it was quite as good as Magyk, but still a really great story.  Sometimes, especially with YA books, I find an author with a funny, engaging way of writing.  Those are some of my favorite author’s and Angie Sage definitely falls into that category.  That said, I did have a few minor problems with Flyte that weren’t problems in the first book.  First, I think the story started a little slower, although having read the first book, I was more than willing to stick it out until we got to the good part!  Second, I though the ending was resolved in an overly complicated way.  Without giving away too much, Jenna is panicking about needing to get somewhere fast, when as far as we know from the first book, transportation is possible.  And finally, the whole story only unfolds the way it does because Marcia is annoyingly oblivious to the impending danger at the beginning of the book.  This is at least explained later though, which made me happier about the whole thing.

Despite these minor flaws, the book was very enjoyable.  The writing was similar to the first book (definitely a good thing!), but the plot was new and interesting.  There was good character development and some new characters were introduced, who I look forward to seeing in future books.  As with the first book, if you enjoy the author’s style as much as I do, you will love this book!  I highly recommend it.

Summary

Blink and The Tipping Point – 4 stars – Not the most scientifically rigorous books, but very interesting commentary on human nature.  Great use of anecdotes, making it an enjoyable read.

Flyte – 4 stars – Not quite as awesome as Magyk, but still wonderfully written and very engaging.

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