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Blinkanomics

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book has been in the house for so long that it was in danger of no longer being his latest book. I exaggerate, perhaps, but I had a real reluctance to open Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown; 2005), and the subtitle may tell you why. A book celebrating the power of snap judgments had almost no appeal to me, partly because I think that I'm very bad at making snap decisions. In any case, it was only after reading a book that has traveled in its wake - Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow, 2005), by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner - that I felt inclined to pick it up. The two books make for an interesting contrast.

Both are brainy but not obscure, and both are great reads. Both are studded with interesting, unexpected, and sometimes quite surprising information. Both clarify great swathes of our world (although I suspect that for their readers these areas were fairly clear already; the people who might benefit most from Freakanomics are unlikely to read books at all). But for Freakanomics to be as useful a book as Blink is, it would have to come in several volumes, and be very comprehensive indeed. Maybe it will.

As Freakanomics might best be thought of as a professional implementation of Blink's lessons, I had better begin with Mr Gladwell. I was wrong about snap judgments. Mr Gladwell does not think much of snap judgments that not made by experts who have honed their expertise and trained themselves to examine their first impressions. We all have the ability to be experts in certain fields, such as reading faces, and since we all make snap decisions about other people, it might be useful to pay attention to how they're made. Otherwise, we risk making what Mr Gladwell calls the "Warren Harding error." Holder, until recently, of the reputation for worst president ever, Harding was elected on the strength of his physical magnetism alone. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn't had a stroke and left the less incapable Calvin Coolidge in charge! A Warren Harding error will probably be the cause of a white person's flinching at the unexpected presence of a black person - no matter how liberal and progressive the white person might think himself to be, and the only way to stop making such mistakes, Mr Gladwell writes, is to

change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture, so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren't betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort. Taking rapid cognition serious - acknowledging the incredible power, for good and ill, that first impressions play in our lives - requires that we take active steps to manage and control those impressions.

The thrust of Freakanomics is more or less to persuade economists to reconsider their snap judgments. In 2001, Mr Levitt and John Donohue published a paper arguing that the preceding decade's conspicuous drop in crime was attributable to the legalization of abortion in 1973. This was news that nobody wanted to hear, least of all the police consultants who'd been busy patting themselves on the back for increasing the effectiveness of their forces or the corrections officials who were shoveling drug offenders into outsourced facilities. The paper naturally reflected unpleasantly on abortion, too, by making the process look like a function of civic health and criminalizing the aborted fetuses. I must confess that I am persuaded by the streamlined version of the argument that Messrs Levitt and Dubner provide here. But to report the argument is not to invite the general reader to participate in it. The only readers who can be purposefully inspired by the abortion/crime-drop study are other economists, who can apply their tools to other large databases in pursuit of unexpected findings. Whereas Blink is full of material for the reader to grapple with, Freakanomics simply reports, as I say, some arresting findings that the reader may or may not find helpful. The accent, so different from Blink's, is on results, not on methodology.

This gives Freakanomics as a book a miscellaneous feel, and reading it may well bring on the sense of guilty pleasure and empty calories that accompanies so many well-written Vanity Fair pieces. In retrospect, the following passage from "An Explanatory Note":

In New York, the publishers were telling Levitt he should write a book.

"Write a book?" he said. "I don't want to write a book." He already had a million more riddles to solve than time to solve them. Nor did he think himself much of a writer. So he said that no, he wasn't interested - "unless," he proposed, "maybe Dubner and I could do it together."

If the book feels somewhat useless, however, that's not to say that its contents aren't illuminating. I'm thinking in particular of the chapter on parenting. Whether parents can do more for their children than feed, clothe, and protect them is the subject of a debate that burns on like a fire in a mine shaft. Judith Rich Harris famously argues that it's peers, not parents, who motivate youngsters. But that doesn't stop expectant moms from aiming Mozart at their swelling bellies. You can argue the subject all you like, but you probably don't begin to have enough information to do so intelligently. That's why we need economists, I suppose, and they in turn need vast collations of data such as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, commissioned by the Department of Education in the late Nineties. Messrs Levitt and Dubner sift through this rich base and, having found which values correlate with test scores and which don't, they arrive at the conclusion that the domestic or environmental factors that influence a child's test scores are reflections on who the parents are. What parents actually do does not seem to matter.

Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided on ago - who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead. If you are smart, hardworking, well educated, well paid, and married to someone equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed. ... But it isn't so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it's who you are. In this regard, an overbearing parent is a lot like a political candidate who believes that money wins elections, whereas in truth, all the money in the world can't get a candidate elected if the voters don't like him to start with.

So, by the time Junior appears, it's too late to worry about more than the basics of food, clothing and shelter. This is a hugely "un-American" proposition. We don't like to think of ourselves as we are. We like to think of what we can do. The two are intimately related, of course, but we like to pretend that they're not: that anybody can make up his mind to do anything. The authors' findings are almost archeoconservative: parents will be good parents to the extent that they in turn were well-bred. Ancestry is destiny. Actually, experience bears this out. How many people do you know who have moved far above their parents in income, education, and domestic happiness while remaining more or less intact? It happens, as Mary Childers is here to demonstrate; but then her book also demonstrates how much more often it doesn't.

To feel complete, Freakanomics as a book would have to more than a pot-pourri of interesting findings. I would have to be encyclopedic in its coverage of daily life, putting economics at the service of our desire to organize and improve our lives. Should we do this, should we do that, or doesn't it matter what we do? It doesn't take a book's length to convince any intelligent person that, however baleful your opinion of the profession, economics can really supply sensible answers to persistent questions. Mr Levitt seems to be motivated in large part by whimsy. The world awaits his more systematic followers.

Mr Gladwell's book, in contrast, feels comprehensive, almost exhaustive. The speed and power of snap judgments, reached we know not how or why, is established. Then the context for making good snap judgments is explained. It turns out to be a matter of getting to Carnegie Hall, and every one of us can be better at it, in the areas that mean the most to us, than we already are. Snap judgments made by people who have worked at being good at making them are then compared to full-dress deliberative processes. In a chapter that's pretty scary to read - because it's not only about nincompoopery at the Pentagon but about heart attacks, too - Mr Gladwell shows that long-drawn out investigations, full of second guessing and grabs for ever more information, can easily obstruct intelligent action, particularly under pressure. A methodology for making snap judgments - a system for letting the answers to a few factual questions make snap judgments for you -  has been tested in emergency rooms and found successful. Finally, Mr Gladwell takes on the problem of eliciting snap judgments - something marketers do for a living, often not very well. (Think New Coke.) Everything here will be of use to everybody.

Both books may appear to suggest that we're a lot less rational than we think we are, and to the extent that they show that we're not just rational, that rationality is just a component in our makeup, and maybe not a very big one, that's true. It is still not widely understood that "reason" and "logic" are relatively primitive tools, developed millennia ago in order to neutralize the catastrophic potential  of incompetent snap judgments. The measure of its primitiveness was that it had to throw out all snap judgments - any judgments that couldn't be lucidly explained. Now, thanks to measuring tools unimaginable several generations ago, we are able to assess ourselves in far greater detail than was available to Aristotle. Books such as Blink and Freakanomics invite us to feel at home in a very complex world. The only case to be made against them is that the people who need this invitation the most are the least likely to read their mail. (June 2005)

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