“What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell: Part Two

  1. The bell-curve assumption has become so much a part of our mental architecture that we eend to use it to organize experience automatically.
  2. We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don’t give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality.
  3. There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people.
  4. Would taking a better picture solve the problem? Not really, because the problem is that we don’t know for sure what we’re seeing, and as pictures have become better we have put ourselves in a position where we see more and more things that we don’t know how to interpret.
  5. What is clear in hindsight is rarely clear before the fact.
  6. The central challenge of intelligence gathering has always been the problem of “noise”: the fact that useless information is vastly more plentiful than useful information. (Some would argue that 99% of everything in our life is noise but we still find patterns. See “The Signal and the Noise”)
  7. The consequence of creeping determinism: in our zeal to correct what we believe to be the problems of the past, we end up creating new problems for the future.
  8. We say variously that people have panicked or, to use the sports colloquialism, choked. But what do those words mean? Both are pejoratives. To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail. (See more in “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart” and “The Up Side of Down”.
  9. When you are first taught something—say-, how to hit a backhand or an overhand forehand—you think it through in a very deliberate mechanical manner. But as you get better, the implicit system takes over: The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in, you begin to develop touch and accuracy. (“How We Learn”, “Blink”, and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” can tell you all about how our brains react to different situations and learning conditions.)
  10. Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke.
  11. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short-term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on.
  12. Panic also cause what psychologists call perceptual narrowing.
  13. Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.
  14. In the technological age, there is a ritual to disaster. When planes crash or chemical plants explode, each piece of physical evidence—of twisted metal or fractured concrete—becomes a kind of fetish object, painstakingly located, mapped, tagged, and analyzed, with findings submitted to boards of inquiry that then probe and interview and soberly draw conclusions.
  15. But what if the assumptions that underlie our disaster rituals aren’t true? What if these public postmortems don’t help us avoid future accidents. (“Work Happy” discusses postmortems and their values when performed properly). The rituals that follow things like plane rashes or the Three Mile Island crisis are as much exercises in self-deception as they are genuine opportunities for reassurance. For these revisionists, high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created.
  16. Modern systems are made up of thousands of parts, all of which interrelate in ways that are impossible to anticipate. Given that complexity it is almost inevitable that some combinations of minor failures will eventually amount to something catastrophic.
  17. The theory of Risk Homeostasis: under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or an organization safer in fact don’t. Why? Because human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.
  18. Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.
  19. Sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
  20. The United States could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom 6-percent to 10 percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. (See an entire treatise about this in “One Nation Under Taught”)
  21. The power of first impressions suggest that human beings have a particular kind of prerational ability for making searching judgments about others.
  22. We assume people display the same character traits in different situations. We habitually underestimate the large role that context plays in people’s behavior.
  23. The Fundamental Attribution Error: to fixate on a supposedly stable character trait and overlook the influence of context.
  24. One of the most important things is that you have to come across as being confident in what you are doing and in who you are. How do you do that? Speak clearly and smile.
  25. It doesn’t work to generalize about a relationship between a category and a trait when that relationship isn’t stable—or when the act of generalizing may itself change the basis of the generalization.


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