Here comes the last part of my review of Blink, Lehigh's selection for the First-Year Experience program this year. Before I begin, let me say that I appreciate Lehigh choosing a "shortish" book for the program. I recently read in the New York Times that Amherst College's selection was Franklin and Winston, a book on - you guessed it - the friendship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. I love the idea behind the selection of the book, and I even have it on my shelves (although I haven't found time to read it yet), but that book is 512 pages long. Can you imagine all Amherst-bound high school graduates reading over five hundred pages of a history book? I can't. I love history and the book has received great reviews, but I doubt most students will finish the book.
(Last year, when I led the seminar about the Dalai-Lama's autobiography at Lehigh, everybody had started the book, but quite a few couldn't bring themselves to finish it, and that was only 271 pages in my edition. Honestly, I don't blame them - the first hundred pages weren't particularly exciting, although the book gets a lot more interesting once the Dalai-Lama is in exile.) Their first assignment in college, and they don't even complete it - can you imagine the impact this has on some? Feeling like "fakes" even before school has started. Maybe it'd make more sense to let them pick from a list of three or four books on different topics - history, science, business, or fiction. Of course you'd lose some of the "bonding" effect touted on the First-Year Experience websites throughout the country because everybody in the first-year cohort wouldn't have been reading the same book, but well, the kids have been bonding on Facebook all summer long, I am sure they can handle their roommate's reading a different book without having a nervous breakdown.
Anyway, I stopped my review of Blink at the end of Chapter 4, so today's post will be on the last two chapters, Chapters 5 and 6, and the conclusion. Chapter 5, "Kenna's Dilemma", is about a musician who enthralls the crowds when people hear him sing, but is getting no play time on the radio because focus groups have decided his songs wouldn't sell. The issue, it seems, is that focus groups' answers don't really predict what consumers will buy. The leading example in this chapter is the abysmal failure of the "New Coke" in the 1980s, which was developed in response to focus groups' overwhelming preferences for Pepsi. (The example starts on p.155.) One reason why consumers did not respond favorably to Coke's formula changes is that the tests in focus groups were "sip tests" - Pepsi apparently tastes better when people only have to take one sip of it, but many consumers who enjoy sipping Pepsi prefer Coke when they have to drink the whole can. (At least that's what Malcolm Gladwell explains. I don't drink soda, so I can't judge.) The other reason for the result is that "in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind" (p.166) - people also unconsciously react to the package when they assess the taste of a product. Regarding package considerations, the example of the brandy bottles p.162-3 is also worth reading.
The last chapter was, for me, the most difficult to read, not because it uses complicated language (it doesn't), but because it tackles the Amadou Diallo case, and I have a hard time reading about police officers' egregious behavior, which always upsets me. For those of you who can't quite place the name, Amadou Diallo is the black man from the Bronx who was killed by 41 bullets on a February 1999 night when plainclothes police officers thought he was taking a gun out of his pocket. The "gun" turned out to be his wallet. Diallo was taking in some air outside his apartment building and Gladwell suggests he thought he was going to get mugged, since, in his neighborhood, big bulky white men rushing out of a SUV at night are typically up to no good. The four police officers were acquitted of murder charges. Gladwell's account of the events surrounding the shooting isn't exactly going to brighten the day of wide-eyed, idealistic high school grads. But maybe they will have dropped the book by then.
On p.222, Gladwell explains that, in contrast with what Hollywood would have us believe, "most police officers - well over 90 percent - go their whole career without ever firing at anyone, and those who do describe the experience as so unimaginably stressful that it seems reasonable to ask if firing a gun could be the kind of experience that could cause temporary autism." (Gladwell uses the expression of temporary autism to describe a situation where clues of someone's pacific intentions are misread and alternative explanations for gestures are ignored.) Apparently, if the heart rate goes about 145 beats per minute, "bad things begin to happen", in the words of a former army lieutenant (p.225), "and at 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing." (Gladwell points out that the most notorious beatings by police officers, such as the one that triggered the Los Angeles riots, took place after high-speed chases - a situation known to increase drivers' heart rate dramatically.) Long story short, having police officers patrol by themselves rather than with a partner is a good thing because it "reduce[s] bravado" (p.233-4). Officers, on their own, tend to be more cautious, so their heart rate doesn't increase as much; they make fewer mistakes and are involved in fewer questionable shootings. This is actually a valuable anger/stress management technique: to stay in control, slow things down when they heat up.
The book's conclusion contains a fascinating story about gender discrimination in orchestras (specifically, a musician named Abbie Conant and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra), and how the practice of auditioning candidates behind a screen has led to women being admitted to top orchestras, without the fuss and controversy associated with better known approaches such as quotas or affirmative action. From p.250: "In the past thirty years, since screens became commonplace, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold." Food for thought after the July 15 article in the New York Times on introducing quotas for women in science.