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Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Updated: February 4, 4:31 PM ET
Interview: Malcolm Gladwell

By Jeff Merron
Page 2

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker, a sports fan, and, most famously, the author of the red-hot 2000 bestseller "The Tipping Point."

"Blink," his latest book, is subtitled, "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking," which is at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Blink

Gladwell is a master at linking sociological and psychological studies with the everyday and mundane, and has an uncanny ability to make connections between new ideas and old, seemingly insolvable problems.

Almost invariably Gladwell will sprinkle anecdotes from the world of sports throughout his writings, whether they're in book form or in New Yorker pieces.

Gladwell is on a long tour to promote "Blink," and when he's not writing or reading or thinking, he can often be found talking about his ideas to the most cutting-edge business leaders in the U.S. For which he's paid a princely sum.

Gladwell took time out of his busy schedule to have an e-mail chat with Page 2's Jeff Merron. They talk about how some of the ideas in "Blink" relate to sports and, most directly, the Super Bowl. You might be surprised at what he thinks the Eagles can do to beat the Patriots.

JM: Early on in "Blink," you ask, "When should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them?" That's a great question, and seems at the heart of what happens on the football field. You've got intense, detailed preparation leading up to the game, and lots of fast analysis between plays (by the coaches and players), and then the "instinctive" moves that happen once the ball is snapped. Let's say the Eagles call you up and ask you to spend a day with the team explaining the lessons of "Blink," and how they could be used in the Super Bowl. Would you take them up on the offer? If so, what would you say? Who would you spend the most time with? What would you want to talk about first?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, it would be slightly terrifying to talk to the players, given that I'm, at my best, 135 pounds. So I'd settle for an hour with Andy Reid. I'd tell him the story from "Blink" about Millennium Challenge, which was the $500 million war game the Pentagon conducted in 2001. It was an elaborate dress rehearsal for the Iraq War, with one side "playing" the U.S. and another team playing Iraq -- and Iraq won. The chapter is all about how that happened, and it focuses on a retired Marine Corps General named Paul Van Riper, who was playing Saddam Hussein.

Gladwell on Sports
Interested in reading some of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker articles that are directly related to sports? Check these out, at his Web site:

September 10, 2001
THE SPORTING SCENE
Drugstore Athlete
To beat the competition, first you have to beat the drug test.

August 21 & 28, 2000
PERFORMANCE STUDIES
The Art of Failure
Why some people choke and others panic

August 2, 1999
REPORTER AT LARGE
The Physical Genius
What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a brain surgeon have in common?

May 19, 1997
DEPT. OF DISPUTATION
The Sports Taboo
Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls.

Van Riper won by speeding up the game. The team playing the U.S. had all kinds of computer programs and decision-making systems, and experts on every conceivable problem. But when the war started, Van Riper hit them with so many unexpected plays so quickly that he forced them out of that kind of conscious, deliberate decision-making mode -- and forced them to rely on their instincts. And they weren't prepared for that. Van Riper, in a sense, went to the "no-huddle" against his much more formidable opponent. And his experience shows that being good at deliberate, conscious decision-making doesn't make you good at instinctive decisions.

That's why I've always been so surprised that more NFL teams don't use the no-huddle. It's not just that it forces your opponent to keep a specific defense on the field. It's that it shifts the game cognitively: it forces coaches and defensive captains to think and react entirely in the instinctive "blink" mode -- and when teams aren't prepared for that kind of fast-paced thinking crazy things happen, like Iraq beating the U.S. Andy Reid has to know that Belichick has an edge when he can calmly and deliberately plot his next move. But does he still have an advantage when he and his players have to make decisions on the spur of the moment? I'd tell Andy Reid to go no-huddle at random, unpredictable points during the game -- to throw Belichick out of his comfort zone.

JM: Well, you've told the story, you've given no-huddle advice, and you've still got 45 minutes on the clock. In walks Donovan McNabb. In walks defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Reid says if you don't give them some good advice, he's going to put on tights right then and there. So you're going to talk. What do you tell those two?

MG: Oh God. That's putting me in a spot. I guess I would only say that I hope McNabb has stopped watching film at this point. I'm not sure anything he learns consciously at this point about the Pats is going to make much difference on Sunday.

Blink
Gladwell says the Eagles should try a no-huddle offense to get New England out of its comfort zone.

JM: You write about how, in auditions for symphony orchestras, both conscious and unconscious biases are strongly at work, and that the simple placement of a screen -- not being able to see whether the person auditioning was a man or a woman -- made a world of difference. Women, in particular, found themselves getting lots of jobs they otherwise would not have been offered. This reminded me of "Moneyball" arguments. On one side, you've got lots of people who believe that you can tell a whole lot about a player by not looking at him, by looking at selected stats. And on another, you've got the scouts, who believe, in short, that seeing is believing. Both seem to me to be examples of "thin slicing." The numbers guys can look at a stat line and say, "Worth it." The scouts can see a player in action and say, "He's got it." These sides seem to be opposed, but they could also be complementary. How can "Blink" help us understand this, and maybe reconcile the two views?

MG: You are right to bring up "Moneyball," because reading Michael Lewis' book was a real inspiration for me. I think about it this way. What people in the classical music world discovered was that when they couldn't see the person auditioning, they made very different and much better hiring decisions than when they could see the auditioner. With a screen up, for instance, they began to hire women for the first time, which suggests that before that their judgment had been impaired by all kinds of biases they were unaware of. What they saw with their eyes had interfered with what they heard with their ears. Billy Beane makes the same argument about scouting prospects: that sometimes what you see -- whether a player is short or tall, thin or heavy -- corrupts your assessment of what really matters, which is whether a guy can hit. So Beane does, essentially, a version of what orchestras do: he put a screen. He doesn't let what he sees with his eyes corrupt his statistical appreciation of a player's ability.

But this doesn't mean that all instinctive judgments about players are useless, because the question of whether a guy can hit is only one of a number of questions that a scout has to answer. GMs also want to know: is the guy lazy or a hard worker? Is he coachable? Does he have good habits? Will he be a good clubhouse presence? How strong is his competitive desire? What separates Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds from any of the other top players drafted alongside them is not talent, at the end of the day. It's desire and competitiveness -- and to predict that you very much need a seasoned scout who can look at a player and have an instinctive sense of what he'll be like years down the road. I always thought that the critics of "Moneyball" misinterpreted what Lewis was saying. He wasn't saying that all instinctive scouting judgments are flawed. He was saying that there are some questions -- like predicting hitting ability -- that are better answered statistically, and that the task of a successful GM is to understand the difference between what can and can't be answered that way. That's my argument in Blink as well.

JM: The "Warren Harding error," which you devote a chapter to, seems to apply often in sports.

MG: The Warren Harding Error is in honor of our best-looking president ever -- a man so handsome and distinguished and with such a barrel chest and broad shoulders and commanding voice that people would just look at him and be convinced that that he would make a wonderful leader. Unfortunately, Harding turned out to be our stupidest and most incompetent president ever. (And there is some stiff competition for that title). The Warren Harding Error is what happens when our first impressions are so powerful that they cloud our better judgment.

I always think about this when I hear basketball people talking about how high a player can jump. People fall in love with leaping ability, because when you see someone soar so far above the rim its an almost emotional experience. It's like looking at Warren Harding. But, of course, what does leaping ability really tell you about a player? Not much. Most rebounds are taken below the rim, and the key to getting your shot off is really how quick your release is and how you shoot, not how high you jump.

JM: What do you think are the most egregious examples of this, in recent memory?

MG: Who suffers the most from the Warren Harding Error? Well, I'm an embittered New Yorker so I'd say Isiah Thomas. He's brought together a group of marvelous athletes -- Crawford, Thomas, Marbury -- all of whom look the part of basketball players, without being able to actually play the game with any great skill or discipline.

JM: Talk a little about tennis coach Vic Braden, the subject of one of your anecdotes. He says, "We haven't found a single (tennis) player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does."

MG: Braden's experience is really interesting. He would ask, say, a world-class tennis player to describe precisely how they would hit a topspin forehand, and they would invariably say that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact with the ball. And then he'd do a digital analysis of videotape of them actually hitting a topspin forehand and find out that at the moment of impact with the ball their wrist was rock solid. They didn't roll it at all. The expertise of a world-class tennis player, in other words, is instinctive, which means that the knowledge behind their actions is buried in the corners of their brain. They hit a ball unconsciously.

JM: Is that why, quite often, great players don't make such great coaches?

MG: Yes, that's precisely why top athletes so often make bad coaches or general managers. They often don't really know why they were as good as they were. They can't describe it, which means that they can't teach it and they quickly become frustrated at their inability to lift others up to their own level. Mediocre players -- or non-athletes -- tend to make better coaches because their knowledge isn't unconscious. It's the same thing with writing. I know very little about science. But I think I write about science more clearly than many scientists, because I have to go over every step, carefully and deliberately.

McNabb
Too much film study may not be a good thing for McNabb.

JM: Nobody in pro football is known more for studying tape than Peyton Manning. If you were to sit down with Peyton while he's studying film, what would you be most interested in? What would you want to know?

MG: Manning reminds me of Tom Hoving, who I write about in "Blink"; he has spent a lifetime studying and handling and thinking about ancient Greek art. One day, the curator of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles showed him a statute they had just bought for $10 million, and Hoving took one look at it and blurted out: "It's fake." In that first split second, the statue struck him as wrong. And sure enough, Hoving was right. It was a fake. When we spend a lifetime studying something that closely, what we are doing is educating our unconscious. We're developing and training our instincts, so that we can glance at a unusual situation and instantly know what it means. That's what Manning is doing by studying so much film. He's educating his on-field instincts.

What I'd love to do is to put eye-tracking goggles on him. Cognitive psychologists use these a lot: they are special glasses that track exactly what your eyes are focusing on at any given moment -- to an incredible level of detail. When you read the word "moment" in my previous sentence, for instance, did you start at the 't' and work backwards, or zero in on the middle "m" or just look at the first 'm' and then skip to the last 't'? The answer would tell me how you "read" a sentence.

I'd love to know, on this same level of detail, how Manning "reads" a defense. Does he spend a extra fraction of a second on the linebacker, or the safety? When he's playing the Ravens, does he look to Ray Lewis first, or last, or does he do something completely unexpected like not looking at Lewis at all? Are there certain schemes that he takes longer to understand? If so, what are they? And so on. Manning, for instance, probably picks up blitzes better than anyone else in football. Wouldn't you love to know what he's doing, in the face of a blitz, that -- say -- Kyle Boller isn't?

JM: When you used the term "momentary autism," in "Blink," I immediately thought of Brett Favre's pass during the first-round playoff game, when he tossed the ball when he was about four yards past the line of scrimmage. He ran off the field and it appeared he was smiling or laughing, as if he couldn't believe what he'd just done. Was that a moment of momentary autism, do you think?

MG: That's an interesting question. I use "momentary autism" to describe those moments when otherwise normal people become autistic -- that is, like people suffering from that disorder, they lose the ability to mind-read, to make sense of the intentions of others. An autistic person can follow the literal meaning of words, for instance, but cannot interpret gestures. They can understand flirting, in other words, only if one party says to another "I'm flirting with you."

Manning
Who does Manning check out when he scans the defense?

I think all of us become momentarily autistic when we're under extreme physiological stress. For instance, when our heart rate gets above 145, our ability to make sophisticated judgments and to engage in this kind of mind-reading begins to erode very rapidly. I'm guessing Joe Montana's heart rate barely got above 100 in any of his fourth-quarter comebacks. Whenever I see Favre do something inexplicably stupid late in the game -- and I feel like he does that a surprising amount -- I'd love to know what his heart rate is at that moment. Is he just a little too excitable for his own good?

JM: Perhaps momentary autism was the wrong phrase to use in Favre's case, but it does seem like something shut down in his mind when that happened. What can Brett -- or other QBs who need to think on their feet and not panic -- do to keep such things from happening? If Ben Roethlisberger had done that, we'd be calling it a "rookie mistake."

MG: I talked for a long time when I was doing "Blink" with a fascinating guy named Gavin deBecker, who runs one of the top personal security agencies in Los Angeles.

Basically, if you're a movie star or a billionaire or the Sultan of Brunei, he provides you with your bodyguard. DeBecker talked a lot about how rigorously he trains his people. If the quality of our coordination and instinctive reactions breaks down when our heart rate gets above 145, he wants to expose his people to stressful situations over and over and over again until they can face them at 130, 110 or 90.

So he fires bullets at people, and does these utterly terrifying exercises involving angry pit bulls. The first and second and third and fourth time you run through one of deBecker's training sessions you basically lose control of your bowels and take off like a scalded cat. By the fifth time, essential bodily functions start to return. By the 10th time, you can function as a normal human being.

This, by the way, is why police officers will tell you that you must practice dialing 911 at least once a week. Because if you don't, when a burglar is actually in the next room, believe it or not you won't be able to dial 911: you'll forget the number, or you'll have lost so many motor skills under the stress of the moment that your fingers won't be able to pick out the buttons on the phone.

So I'd run quarterbacks who don't do well under pressure through deBecker's gauntlet -- or any other kind of similar exercise so they have a sense of what REAL life-threatening stress feels like. I'd run them through a live-fire exercise at Quantico. I'd have them spend the offseason working with a trauma team in south-central L.A. It is only through repeated exposures to genuine stress that our body learns how to function effectively under that kind of pressure. I think its time we realized that a quarterback needs the same kind of exhaustive preparation for combat that we give bodyguards and soldiers.

JM: You provide some compelling examples of how too much data can undermine decision-making. Can you talk a little about how this might apply to sports? Is there a point, during Super Bowl prep, for example, when the info spigot should be turned off?

MG: Oh, absolutely. I think that the worst thing about the Super Bowl is the two-week layoff. I think teams get over-coached in the second week. In "Blink," I talk about how we can turn ER doctors from terrible decision-makers when it comes to diagnosing chest pain into great decision makers simply by limiting the amount of information they are given about a patient. Load them down with every conceivable piece of data, and they have real difficulty distinguishing patients with heartburn from patients who are experiencing a real heart attack. Limit them to three or four crucial pieces of data, though, and they do a great job. How can that not be true of football players as well? It's quite possible right now that Tom Brady or Donovan McNabb simply know too much about each other.

JM: One of my pet peeves, especially in basketball, is the frequency of timeouts that are called near the end of games. My thought is, "Let 'em play!" It seems that two bad things could be going on when this happens: 1) a loss of spontaneity on the part of the players, and 2) a message sent from coach to players that says, unconsciously, of course, that he doesn't trust that they know what to do. Your thoughts?

MG: I agree, which is why I argued above for the no-huddle. We know the Pats are a beautifully coached team when Belichick has time to think. But are they still the best team in the NFL when Belichick has no time to think, and the players have to rely on their instincts?

JM: Super Bowl XXXIX is just a couple of days away. SportsNation says, by about a 2-to-1 margin, that the Patriots will win. If you want to bet on the Pats, you've got to give up six or seven points, a lot in a game like this. That's an overwhelming amount of "crowd wisdom" that says the Eagles don't have much of a chance. Is there any reason to go against the crowd? Are we all just a bunch of heavy cola drinkers, who consume a lot of football on TV but aren't "expert" enough to really understand? Can you, as a football fan, "thin slice" this Pats-Eagles matchup and tell us what you see?

MG: The point of thin-slicing -- the art of making accurate predictions from very "thin-slices" of experience, is that it's something that only experts can do. I talk about a guy, in "Blink," who can listen to a couple have a random conversation with each other for 15 minutes and -- on the basis of that "thin-slice" -- predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will be together or divorce seven years down the road.

But that's an expert, someone who has spent his life studying marriage. I can't do that. And nor, for that reason, is my thin-slice of the Pats-Eagles matchup particularly useful. I learn most of what I know about sports form ESPN.com! Nor am I, then, particularly interested in the opinions of the general sports fan either.

But you and I, Jeff, could sit down and come up with a half-dozen people in football whose opinion we really respect -- and their gut feeling about the game would be really really useful. How does Bill Walsh see this matchup? Or Joe Gibbs? Or Tony Dungy? Or Bill Cowher? (Who, after all, played them both). If Cowher said that he worried more about playing the Eagles than the Pats, I'd take the Eagles and the points, thank you very much. And if Bill Simmons took the Eagles, I'd feel even better about my pick. (Like that's EVER going to happen).

JM: Almost all the ideas and anecdotes in "Blink" can connect cleanly with problems and challenges facing sports organizations, teams, and athletes. Any teams or athletes coming to you for consultation?

MG: None! Not even my beloved Buffalo Bills!