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Gurus of the glance: Gladwell gets snappy, slices thin

Malcolm Gladwell's slender Blink explains why first impressions sometimes make more sense than the time-consuming routines of conscious decision making, telling the stories of experts who sell cars, identify forged artwork, and forecast marital breakdown on the basis of virtually instantaneous acts of judgment. Though he offers convincing accounts of what went wrong in the reactions of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo and why major symphony orchestras only began hiring women after moving auditions behind screens, Gladwell's an evangelist of the snap judgment, celebrating the power of "reading deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience," a kind of thinking he calls "thin-slicing" or "rapid cognition." "The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few," Gladwell asserts. "It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves."

Gladwell's got a lovely prose style and an eye for the striking anecdote. The psychologist Paul Ekman describes the facial expression that says Bill Clinton's "a guy who wants to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar and have us love him for it anyway." Ekman then contracts his zygomatic major, tugs down the corners of his lips with the triangularis, flexes his mentalis, presses his lips together, and rolls his eyes, leaving Gladwell with the uncanny sense that Clinton's actually in the room. Despite some tension between Gladwell's worship of elegance (you can know everything important in two seconds) and his cult of expertise (some people understand far more about human nature than others), he sensibly concludes that the best decisions incorporate both instinct and deliberation, a balanced judgment with nothing snap about it.

 
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