U of T Reading Series: Gladwell, Manji, Jewsion et al

A cop identifies you as a potential rapist. An admitting physician in an ER thinks you're having a heart attack. A world-famous conductor chooses you for his symphony orchestra.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that these situations are ones where the people making the decisions - the cops, the doctor, the maestro - would need to put a lot of thought into those decisions; would need to take time and study all the facts. Not so, says Malcolm Gladwell. In his new book, Gladwell says many of these decisions are made in the blink of an eye.

Kind of a scary thought, no? How d'you like the idea that you could find yourself behind bars - or dead - as the result of a snap decision gone awry? But forcing people to stop making those kinds of decisions is, in a lot of cases, impossible. So, Gladwell says, we have to improve the conditions under which those decisions are made.

Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Tipping Point, has a new book out, called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. On Monday night, he gave a talk about it at U of T, as part of the U of T Bookstore Reading Series.

The main point of the book is that snap decisions play a much bigger part in our lives than we could ever imagine. Gladwell told a story from the book, where the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a kind of blustery dude from the old school who felt that only men could play classical music, hired a woman when the auditions took place with the candidates playing behind a screen.

Gladwell's point is that up until then, the conductor had made his hiring decisions before the candidates had played a single note; practically the first piece of information he received about the prospective musicians - their sex - played a determining role in his choice. When the visual information was taken away, his decision-making process changed for the better. Gladwell hopes that, with the recognition of the important role snap decisions play in everyday life, people will come up with ways to make those decisions better.

But losing extraneous info isn't always the best way to do that, as Gladwell illustrated with the story of how he came to write Blink in the first place. After deciding, in his 30s, that he "no longer had to accede to his mother's wishes" about how to groom his hair, he grew it out and now sports a white man's 'fro. Not long after this, he noticed he was getting fingered by the long arm of the law with much greater frequency, more speeding tickets and random traffic stops, etc. Finally, he found himself surrounded by a van full of New York's Finest, who thought he resembled a rapist they were looking for. It turned out that the only thing he really had in common with the rapist was being a man, and the wild hair.

The cops had about three seconds in which to decide whether or not to stop him, and they chose to stop him. In this case, though, it was extra information that saved Gladwell. If all the cops had had to go on was "male, with big hair" he might have had a problem. Fortunately, the guy they were looking for was younger, heavier and taller, and eventually the cops agreed Gladwell wasn't their man and let him go.

Someone in the audience asked him why he didn't just cut his hair. Gladwell replied that with his current 'do he had crossed over from the "dork" to the "hipster" category, and decided that being a "possibly-criminal hipster" instead of a "law-abiding dork" was worth the inconvenience of being stopped by the NYPD from time to time.

But the incident got him thinking about how many vital decisions are made that quickly each day, whether because of time constraints, high-pressure situations, or just because humans are judgmental by nature. Thus Blink was born. He says that what he wants people to take away from reading it is that rapid cognition needs to be taken seriously, since it's something that can affect our lives quite profoundly.

Next up in the U of T Reading series: On Tuesday, February 22, authors Irshad Manji, Susan Renouf and Susan Swan talk about self-censorship at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 120 St. George St., 7:30 p.m. And on the 24th, director Norman Jewison discusses his autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me.

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