Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

This book was a gift from a friend. It's my first exposure to Malcolm Gladwell; I remember that his earlier books, Blink and The Tipping Point, sparked a lot of discussion, but I've read neither. What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell's essays for The New Yorker, for which he is a staff writer.

The title essay, exploring the life and work of "dog whisperer" Cesar Millan, is actually one of the weaker ones in the book, but its title illustrates what motivates Gladwell. A more conventional journalist might focus on the trainer, perhaps on the dog owners who hire him, and finally, a bit on the dogs themselves. Gladwell wants to know why Millan is so successful from the dog's perspective. In other words, what does the dog see?

Gladwell excels not so much at offering blazing insight into the events and trends of our times but rather glimpses into the minds of those involved. In the preface, he admits a lifelong fascination for what goes on inside others' heads.  Developmental psychologists employ the term 'other minds problem'  to describe that early childhood phase when toddlers struggle to realise that what fascinates, delights or infuriates them may not be universal. Gladwell adds that "as adults we never lose that fascination," but I would disagree on that point. I know too many people who seem never to have developed the slightest curiosity about what makes others tick. It seems they tackled the 'other minds problem' as toddlers and promptly gave up on it, never again considering that others' minds might function differently (or more energetically) than their own. Malcolm Gladwell, on the other hand, burrows into other psyches with the fervour and intelligence of a terrier, and his findings are a delight to other curious, nosy people.

If someone told me, "Listen, you should read Gladwell's 23-page essay on women's hair dye," I might imagine a history of women's hair alterations, an expose on cosmetic company malfeasance, or the latest discussion of whether blondes really have more fun. With a reptile smile I would agree to put it onto my list [of things I will never, ever read]. But Gladwell writes for The New Yorker, not Seventeen. If The New Yorker has published a piece on hair dye, it's unlikely to announce that Frivolous Fawn is all the rage this season. He interviewed the female ad execs who cooked up two of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time: Clairol's Nice & Easy ("Does she, or doesn't she? Only her hair-dresser knows for sure") and L'Oreal's Preference ("Because I'm worth it!"). Where did these lines come from? What about them resonated with consumers at the time? What did they say about the ad-women, and women in general? I have no interest in hair dye; I've never used it and don't intend to start now, but I found this essay riveting.

Ilon Specht, the woman working on the L'Oreal campaign in 1973, was totally fed up with being the only woman in her male-dominated field, her ideas being trampled and countered with copy that treated women as objects. She recounted her inspired rage.
"I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it."
Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: "I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the color. I expect great color. What's worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal. Because I'm" -- and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest -- "worth it."
Gladwell notes, "An astonishing 71% of American women can now identify that phrase as the L'Oreal signature, which, for a slogan -- as opposed to a brand name -- is almost without precedent."  Why do we remember it? I remember the jolt when I first saw and heard those ads in the early 1970s. It was the first time I'd heard a woman assert that she was worth anything at all, that she had the right to expect anything, or that how something felt to her should matter in the slightest. Shirley Polykoff, the older woman who concocted Clairol's ad campaign was equally defiant in a different way -- as a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, she insisted that America was about the right of self-definition, and whether or not women dyed their hair was no one else's damned business.

What the Dog Saw includes two of Gladwell's essays about the Enron fiasco. Neither focuses on the Byzantine business structure or the accounting skullduggery -- plenty of other writers covered those aspects. In "Open Secrets", Gladwell explores the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. "A puzzle grows simpler with the addition of each new piece of information," he says, but "mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much."  (This is a theme he takes up in a few of the essays.)  He argues that the Enron failure fell into the mystery category. All the information was out there, published in annual reports, but it was so complex that nearly no one -- including many senior executives at both Enron and Arthur Anderson -- could understand it. He compares this to contemporary intelligence efforts to identify genuine threats from the mountains of data they receive. Sifting through reams of complex data is not impossible, though. It requires time, knowledge and perseverance. Gladwell notes that a group of Cornell business school students decided to do a semester-long case study of Enron when it was at its zenith.
The students' conclusions were straightforward. Enron was pursuing a far riskier strategy than its competitors. There were clear signs that "Enron may be manipulating its earnings." The stock was then at $48 -- at its peak, two years later, it was almost double that -- but the students found it overvalued. The report was posted on the website of the Cornell University business school, where it has been, ever since, for anyone who cares to read the twenty-three pages of analysis. The students recommendation was on the first page, in boldfaced type: "Sell."
This is only one of the essays that leads readers to ask, where does our information come from? To what extent should we trust it? When Gladwell speaks with doctors who specialise in reading mammograms, I came away feeling that women might better seek a Tarot card reading if they wonder about the state of their breasts. When a dozen doctors read the same mammogram and reach wildly variant diagnoses, you recognise both the limitations of the technology and individuality of the mortals who are interpreting it. It's very unsettling to realise what experts do not know.

The world is full of mysterious things, like Enrons and mammograms and pit bulls. They are not unknowable, Gladwell insists, but we need to look at them from different perspectives and not make unfounded assumptions. And there are more than enough mysteries and puzzles to animate his essays for the rest of his career. May it be a long one.

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