Snooping, Blinking and a Controversial Chair

As you may remember, while my eyes have been troublesome, Mr Litlove has been reading to me most days after lunch – a sort of bookish siesta. This has meant picking out books that we’re both interested in, which in reality has meant non-fiction, and mostly psychology studies. Earlier this year we read two related books that couldn’t have been more different.

Snoop by Sam Gosling had an intriguing premise. What Your Stuff Says About You, the subtitle reads, and essentially, it’s about decoding the objects people possess in order to gain psychological insight into them. It’s what most of us do when entering the room of a new acquaintance for the first time, casing the joint to see what kind of books, pictures, music the new friend owns; the fact that Gosling’s research students prove you can make a pretty swift and accurate personality assessment on this basis seems to show there’s more to it than meets the eye (see what I did there?). Gosling proposes that daily clutter can be categorized three ways, as an ‘identity claim’ (things we’re proud to have reflect on us), a ‘feeling regulator’ (things that arouse emotion or contain special memories) or a ‘behavioural residue’ (the overflowing laundry basket that says you’re a slob). Then he introduces the reader to the five big personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – and shows how objects can be character markers of these traits.

And that’s about as far as we got before we abandoned the book. There were a number of problems that stymied us (okay, mostly me) and that forced us to give it up in the end. The first is that, in the history of crossover non-fiction literature there are few academic authors who are quite as evidently pleased with themselves as Dr Gosling is. This is a bit off-putting. The book begins with him showing off his amazing skills to a television producer who has sent him a box of items from the room of a mystery person. From a small tube of skin cream, a hairbrush, a scratched CD of dance music and a photo of a sink area, Dr Gosling deduces an Asian male in mid-to-late twenties who is probably gay. What seems important here is that all this is for the pilot episode of a new program about snooping that would have a role for an expert in such matters (guess who?).

But as we get more examples of Gosling’s prowess, I did begin to question it somewhat. Gosling gives us the example of a large seagull mobile hanging in the office of a research collaborator that catches his eye. What does this tell him about his colleague? What may he deduce from it? After much pontification via the strategies of Hercule Poirot, he decides that the seagull was probably linked to a fond memory or a meaningful event and that it helped his colleague stay calm and focused. When asked, the colleague said she’d bought it at a conference at Stockholm and used it ‘to stop tall people standing too close to her.’ Conclusive, no? No. Dr Gosling helpfully points out that you can’t ever expect one object to tell you everything about a person, and the chances are you’re going to be wrong more than you’re right. And this was the problem with all his argumentation that I heard; it was dilatory, digressive and far from clear. He just couldn’t nail his points.

It was about now that my life began to seem very short and precious to me.

So I had a snoop of my own in Dr Gosling’s acknowledgements and found a very long, fulsome expression of gratitude to his editor and the hours they spent side-by-side writing and rewriting, to the extent that he felt she was a ‘co-author’. Which told me that Dr Gosling had probably got his contract on the TV interest and the high concept and then struggled manfully to write the thing. Of course, in all fairness the problem with a DNF is that it might have become brilliant in its later stages and entirely fulfilled all its initial promise. I don’t know; I never got that far. But maybe that editor whipped him into shape by the end.

Anyhoo, we decided to swap to the book that had first drawn attention to the ‘science of snooping’ and given Gosling his break: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Blink is a book about snap judgements and the way they can be more accurate and helpful than second, third and fourth thoughts. Gladwell opens with a marble statue bought by the Getty Museum, supposedly dating from the sixth century BC. The purchase took place after a cautious 14-month investigation by art experts, and then the statue went on display to full fanfare. At that point the trouble started, as other experts and dealers and people from the art world came and looked and felt in their gut that something just wasn’t right. The Getty took the murmurs of uncertainty seriously and further investigations were made. And oh dear, it turned out that the kouros ‘didn’t come from ancient Greece. It came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980s.’

So, Blink is a book about the way that our cautious, thoughtful brain can be confused and our quick, grasping one can be clear-sighted. It’s sort of an easy version of Daniel Kaufman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, with extra jolly anecdotes. Because say what you like about Malcolm Gladwell (and I believe some people do), that man has a genius for exploiting the exemplary anecdote. His arguments throughout this book were beautifully made, utterly lucid and persuasive, and consistently interesting.

He moves from the frivolous to the serious and stops at various stations of the cross in between. Pausing at researchers working with five minute videos of couples from which they deduce the likelihood that the couple will stay together, through Warren Harding’s truly disastrous presidency (yes, there are precedents!) which he won almost entirely because he looked the part (exactly like the butler from Downton Abbey, in case you’re wondering), through the madness of market research. Take the rivalry between Pepsi and Coca-Cola and the television adverts Pepsi ran in the 1980s that showed people off the street taking a sip of each drink and declaring Pepsi the nicer of the two. Coca-Cola, rattled, ran its own blind tests and found that 57% of participants did indeed prefer Pepsi. Horrified, they altered the secret formula to make the drinks more similar – and released the product to consumer outrage. Their loyal customers hated the new drink and it was rapidly taken from the shelves never to be seen again. The thing is, what might be nicer on the basis of one sip (because it’s sweeter) is not necessarily nicer to drink at length. The sip test turns out to be misleading.

There are also more serious sides to the book, considering the use of snap judgements in combat situations and in the case of four white officers shooting a lone black man in the Bronx in February 1999. The man was entirely innocent of any crime, and the object he had withdrawn from his back pocket as the officers approached him turned out to be a wallet, not a gun as they had assumed. Gladwell looks at this incident from the perspective of a ‘mind-reading failure’. We have them all the time, instincts that arise and tell us someone is hostile or angry or something else altogether, drawn from another person’s facial expressions and body language. But police officers have to act regularly on those instincts in life or death situations, and sometimes they have terrible results. When you have so much adrenaline pumping through your system that you literally cannot tell the difference between a gun and a wallet, I think that’s a pretty good argument for not arming your average patrol cop, but what do I know?

So, all in all, this turns out to be a book that is just as cautious about snap judgements as it is congratulatory of them. Essentially, Gladwell is carving out a position in which thinking fast is a good idea, and shading in all the areas in which it gives misleading (sometimes disastrously so) results. Essentially, the issue boils down to experience and expertise. The more time you have spent studying something, and the more experience you’ve had in judging and then weighing the results of that judgement, the better your instincts will be.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren’t grounded in real understanding.’

Which, in an age that has become ‘fed up’ of experts, is something we should probably all hear.

Finally, then, a little blink test of my own. Below is a chair that Mr Litlove has recently finished after the style of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Do you like it or not? I do, but Mr Litlove doesn’t. What does that say about us, I wonder?


42 thoughts on “Snooping, Blinking and a Controversial Chair

  1. I like the chair to look at very much, but having sat on some high quality reproductions of this style of chair by Mackintosh I found them to be objects of art rather than furniture – so uncomfortable!
    P x

  2. Blink and you will pull out the wrong plug 🙂 I’ve seen an estemmed and very experienced colleague unwire a whole rack of electronics because his snap judgement (backed by decades of experience) told him what the problem was, except of course on this occasion it wasn’t and I had to help rewire it all over the next hour or so. I am quite cautious (even when under pressure) these days about making quick judgements (unconcious bias effects are relevant here too) and have on at least one occasion suggested a break for dinner rather than quickly “doing the obvious” to fix something during a week of using a CERN test-beam many years ago.

    • There are certainly more examples in the book of snap judgements being wrong than there are of them being right. I should also mention that Gladwell treads a more careful and nuanced path through his argument than I do in my review! But I can easily imagine how anyone could pull the wrong plug in a moment of over-confidence or confusion…. I’m guessing your colleague learned a lot from that experience, however! 🙂 Breaking for dinner is, I am sure, always a wise and sensible counsel.

  3. Snoop sounded so good initially. Too bad it wasn’t. Blink however sounds really worthwhile. I’m reading another one by him, The Tipping Point, which is interesting.
    It’s so nice of Mr Litlove to read to you.
    I do like the chair but judging from other ones he made, I’m not surprised he’s not that keen on it.

    • It may be that Snoop got a lot better in the second half – I didn’t read it to the end and so there’s always a chance. But the initial chapters weren’t fabulous, for sure. I don’t think I’ve read The Tipping Point, though I think it’s a very well-considered book by Gladwell. I read his Outliers before this one, the book about what makes people successful, and that was good but you could see how the criticism might be valid that he makes a couple of examples stretch too far as a general argument. Still, I find him always entertaining. And yes, I am very lucky to have a narrator! I pay him in cake. 🙂

  4. Well, I really like the chair, but then I am a big fan of Rennie Mackintosh. Why is Mr Litlove not proud of it?
    How lovely to have books read to you! Although shame that Snoop didn’t live up to expectations and, although I was initially somewhat doubtful about the premise of Blink, the conclusions seem pretty sound. I suppose we tend to remember those cases in which our gut instinct was proved right and conveniently forget all of the instances when it was proved wrong.

    • He’s not very eloquent on the subject. I think basically he prefers chairs to be curved and comfy rather than the rectilinear thing, but I do think it’s a beautiful piece of art furniture myself. I’m very glad you enjoyed Blink and your comment made me laugh. I think we probably do have convenience amnesia in all kinds of places, lol! 🙂

  5. Blink sounds much more interesting of the two books, and I’m not surprised you got fed up with the first author – he sounds infuriating! As for the chair – it’s quite beautiful. I too would probably not find it comfy to sit in, but as an objet it’s quite stunning!

    • I’m so glad you think that, Karen – that’s pretty much my opinion too! It’s not the comfiest chair, but then it’s much more of a design piece. That poor man who wrote Snoop – he’s probably completely different from the impression he gives, well, I hope so at least. 🙂

  6. The chair looks very well-made – a shining testament to Mr LitLove’s craftsmanship, no doubt – but I’m afraid that I don’t like it much either. I think it’s because it looks like it’s meant to be admired, rather than sat on.

    • Mq, cb thank you for your lovely comment – so diplomatic and kind! It is definitely a chair that’s all about the design, and not the sort you’d want to sit on for too long!

  7. Not knowing anyone involved: I will guess that you both love the clean long lines and the adventurous wood cuts.

    You like the seat because it is floral and looks a bit cushy. He does not like the seat because it has a whiff of vulgarity. You like the rounded blossoms in contrast with the chair lines; he prefers rounded blossoms in real life–i.e. in real gardens or on real bodies.

    Am I at all close?

    • Wow, Gubbinal, you’re much better at this than Dr Gosling! I also really like the hard black lacquer – I don’t know why! Just that it isn’t a comfy chair and so it might as well be what it is – a design piece. If it promised comfort it didn’t deliver, I would find that really annoying.

  8. I remember enjoying Snoop (on a purely superficial level), I imagine that listening to it is a different experience that wouldn’t work for a book like that!
    Gladwell is another matter – I’ve read The Tipping Point which was brilliant. He is an excellent communicator.
    Mr Litlove’s chair – it’s glorious. Each chair you show us, shows how talented he is.

    • It’s quite amazing how hearing a book changes it completely. It is SUCH a hard test and few books seem to make it for me – I’ve turned into a harsh critic overnight! But yes, Gladwell is fab and I’m so glad you like him, too. And that is such a lovely comment about the chair, thank you. I think you are officially on Mr L’s favourite persons list now. 🙂

      • You might consider trying one of Tim Harford’s books as the Gladwell worked. He writes much as he sounds on his R4 programmes.

      • We do indeed have a Tim Hartford book somewhere – Mr Litlove likes him very much and I know I’ve bought at least one for him! The great explainers are very useful, and certainly at the moment.

  9. I like the chair! How is it to sit upon? It’s at least very attractive to LOOK upon.

    I’m afraid I’m one of the people who says things about Malcolm Gladwell. I think he’s well-intentioned, and you’re quite right that he’s got an eye for the perfect anecdote, but I don’t trust him to put all the pieces together in an honest way. Not an honest way! That’s mean! But I think he’s more committed to making an interesting narrative than he is in critical thinking. Said Jenny very damningly. :p

    • Thank you for your kind chair comment, Jenny! It is much better looked at than sat upon, unless you have a ramrod straight spine… but looking at it is lovely.

      It’s also very good to have the opposing point of view with regard to Gladwell. I find it quite intriguing how we often do end up looking at things from opposite perspectives. I’m not sure whether we should offer our brains to science or our souls to the anthropologists, but I do feel that, together, we ought to offer terrific enlightenment to someone, somewhere! 🙂

  10. I love the chair, but The Bears say that there isn’t enough room for all of them to sit on it together and that very small Bears would fall through the gaps in the back, so consequently it doesn’t past muster. On such considerations is this household run!

    • Ah! I see the problem. One day I will have to post here the mini chairs that Mr Litlove has made as test models. They are a perfect fit for Rainy the Reindeer and I imagine that some of the smaller Bears would find them very appealing. Our household understands your household…. 🙂

  11. I like the chair; it’s just the right thing for when I get a throne room.
    While Gladwell may not be good at critical thinking, I wonder if that’s part of his point? I used to pick places to live with the “blink” method. When it feels/smells/looks right, that hits you first thing. If you have to consider, there’s probably something wrong with it, at least for you. (And it turns out I can smell dry rot.)

    • Oh Jeanne. I so want you to have a throne room.

      Being able to smell dry rot is a pretty useful skill, I’d say, and you make a good point about Gladwell. Blink is indeed about the instinctual overtaking the considered – and things like choosing houses to live in must have a huge component of that. Certainly the two houses we’ve had were ones I knew I wanted pretty much the second I walked in the door (even though both were in need of extreme work!). He is indeed trying to distinguish where those sorts of skills are exactly right for the task and where they get in the way of it.

  12. The chair is very beautiful – something I’d adore to possess.Good for an entrance hall, perhaps, where it would be seen a lot and only briefly perched on. But not comfortable to sit on for long.

    • Jean you’re exactly right – it is indeed a hall chair. The kind that my dad would have been very happy to put by the phone (when a phone in the hall was all the phone you ever had) in order to discourage long calls, lol! I am so very glad you find it beautiful – I love your taste.

  13. Gosling sounds like a massive pain—theories like his always remind me of the incredible arrogance inherent in the Sherlock Holmes-esque assumption that correct deductions are possible and indeed inevitable from very limited evidence.

    Re. the chair, we’ve one very like it in our bedroom. I never ever sit on it, but like it aesthetically—there’s something about the little square cut-outs.

    • What an interesting thought about Sherlock Holmes! In my crime fiction analysing days, we used to say that the detective was the master reader, and as such offered an idealised identification to the actual reader of the book (who could then feel just as clever). I hadn’t thought of the gender dimension – it’s true that Miss Marple does things differently! And you are so right about the little square cut-outs in the chair. They are exactly what draws the eye. We also have a chair in the bedroom – clothes go on it, my ipod docking station, things I don’t want to lose in the general chaos… etc. You couldn’t sit on ours, either, even if you tried!

  14. The chair doesn’t look comfortable, and I can’t sit in it so can’t really judge. My stuff probably reveals a fondness for thrift shopping – I’m cheap.

    An anecdote that supports both books: We recently sold a house to a couple who immediately knew it was “their house.” Both were professors at a nearby university; one taught literature and the other art. In retirement with the kids through college and the mortgage paid off, my husband returned to painting, and I began writing novels. The homebuyers saw original art on the walls and shelves of books and felt right at home.

    • I am quite sure that original art on the walls and shelves of books would make me feel an affinity with a house too, Patricia! What fab retirement projects, too.

  15. Hi LL. Tried to comment before but WordPress was having a sulk! Love the chair – as a work of art (and it is lovely to look at) rather than as a comfy chair.
    I’ll skip Gosling but always have time for Gladwell.

    • Oh wordpress! Hasn’t it got moody lately! I’m so glad you like the chair – and I completely agree it’s more art than comfort! And that you like Gladwell, too. I did really admire the way he put an argument together. It isn’t easy!

  16. Honestly I think Mr Litlove is the most inventive maker of chairs. I have fallen instantly in love. With the chair.

    On both books, and your very own blink test, I can’t help wondering about the role of projection: we all see through our very own personal filters and bring our very own personal (hi)stories to anything we see. And that can prompt us to very wrong but also to very right conclusions … .

    • I think you’re spot on with the notion of projection, Angela. I think it is the veil through which we apprehend all reality, and why three people can go on an outing together and write three totally different accounts of it! And thank you for your gorgeous comment on the chair – bless you for that!

    • You’re quite right, it’s not a comfy chair this one! Definitely more of a looker. Mr Litlove has been trying out all kinds of styles, sometimes for technical purposes, sometimes just to see what he thinks. He wanted to get a wide variety for his portfolio (because he’ll make it if someone else likes it!). Also, wood is expensive, so it’s best to get the chair finished – we’ve got enough offcuts for the fire! 🙂

  17. I belatedly join the chorus of all the commenters who have said that the chair doesn’t look comfortable, but perhaps it’s misleading. Regarding Malcolm Gladwell, if you’re into audiobooks and podcasts, have you checked out his podcast series Revisionist history? It’s awesome! (especially, for you, those episodes about education in the US, I wonder what you’d think of it)

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