Interlude: Malcolm Gladwell on people ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

Interlude: Malcolm Gladwell on people

I've written two posts in the past, reviewing Gladwell's books, Blink and The Tipping Point. Both posts are no longer online and thus game for reproduction. Following will be these two reviews (lightly edited), which were already rather short, and would make for a good marketing-related interlude.

"The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" (reviewed October 2006)
Thetippingpoint.jpg I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, about a year ago, a slightly older book from 2000, but with some timeless insights on viral marketing and tipping the user-adoption scale.

Essentially, the author takes takes cues from biology and epidemiology to explain how ideas can spread like virusses, facilitated by three key-players: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Each of these play a role at different stages of the adoption process, with Mavens acting as the knowledgeable early adopter, the Connectors acting as hubs between groups of user, and Salesman taking care of the last mile, the mainstream-market.

The book explains how people take in information, using a variety of examples from TV-shows to Sneakers, as well as how companies can shape their marketing-efforts to gain access to those three key-figures. Only in the afterword, does Gladwell cover issues like email and the rule of 150 - the latter refers to “Dunbar's Number,” which proposes there are limits to our cognitive social functions and that it's only possible to actively maintain a certain sized (150 people) social circle (Whether this still applies today can perhaps be disputed).

The Tipping Point does a fairly good job in translating social theories to practice, better so than recent attempts like Freakonomics (which, in my opinion, was too abstract), and the insights will continue to be relevant. That said, I expect that some trendspotting-practices of companies will change, or have changed drastically since the time of writing, in the sense that consumer-driven products seem to be taking off, as well as “long-tail” business (which may or may not be the same thing) . Perhaps his newest book, Blink, corrects this.

"Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (reviewed December 2006)
Malcolm Gladwell Blink.jpgIf you Blink, you're dead!” This must be a phrase you hear in movies often, mostly when one character has a gun pointed at another (editor: seriously, this must be the corniest start of a post ever). Gladwell has definitely taken this phrase to an extreme, attempting to research everything about it.

My first reaction when hearing this book was  “Malcolm, what were you thinking when wrote this book?” The space of two seconds—the time it takes to blink—turns out to be gigantic and many people wouldn't even know where to begin exploring what happens there. But mr. Gladwell does his best, looking through the lenses of experts from various disciplines and giving a broad range of examples.

The book starts with describing the purchase of a statue by a museum. After consulting many experts they decide the statue is authentic and pay a huge sum for it. Then, however, another expert, one from the field this time, takes a quick look and feels something is wrong with it. And he's right, the statue is in fact a fake. Malcolm Gladwell asks the question as to why some people have an instinct that can judge things, people, and situations more quicly, than studied experts can over the space of weeks, months, or years. The answer is perhaps obvious: practice.

Following this example, Gladwell proceeds to describe the fields of rleationship-therapy, facial recognition science, security, sociology, and some others, where the practice of instinct, or rather the rapid understanding of situations, is very important, so much so that there are therapists that can predict whether a relationship will end quickly or last forever, are able to tell if you're lying, can teach policemen to judge whether a person is drawing a gun or a mobile phone. But where the book really shines is in understanding where racism and discrimination comes from, which, Gladwell shows, can have deadly consequences in fields like police-work, and which continues to be relevant in today's polarised society.

I see Blink as a book aimed at experts, but sold in a mainstream-market. There are principles in the book which are clearly valuable to everyone, yet to get there it takes hard work and practice. But, having read and reviewed his previous book, The Tipping Point, I believe the point is not for the reader to become a genius. Rather, it's to surround yourself with the right people that have access to this knowledge. The example of the museum clearly shows the usefulness of this.

For further reading you may want to check out this Scientific American Mind article, on the science behind facial recognition (and exposing lies).

Final thoughts
Blink and the Tipping Point are at different points in Gladwell's evolutionary scale, and I think, judging by his latest speech and his soon-to-be-released book on "the workplace of the future," he's more and more moving towards understanding the upper regions of the brain. At the same time, an inherent risk in this approach is usually that you forget that there are real people involved, and I don't get a sense that this is happening.

Rather, when you listen to his speech on the nature of intelligence, and read his books, you see that he is very careful to understand the context of why something happens, not just the occurrence itself. And that context alone makes for some excellent reading, because I suspect that that is one of of the secret ingredients to becoming one of the geniuses that Gladwell describes.


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