Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Shemika Thormahlen
Chapter 4

Paul Van Riper was a tall, older man. He fought in the Vietnam War as a marine commander leader and was associated with some of the most intense fighting in the entire war. Officers recall Van Riper being an appealing, reasonable leader who — in some cases — went out on a limb to assist his troopers, always willing to risk his life to help his men. In 2000, a gathering of Pentagon authorities enlisted Van Riper for a very costly “war game” intended to prepare American troops and test new speculations about the military system. In the war game, or the ‘Millennium Challenge’, as they called it, officers would battle against an anecdotal Middle Eastern military administrator who was taking steps to maneuver the whole area into war. Van Riper was given a role as a military commander.

The Millennium Challenge yielded some fascinating outcomes. The Blue Team ‘waged war’, with the assistance of an apparatus called Operation Net Assessment, a basic leadership system that separated every single military choice into its monetary, social, and political components. On the other hand, the Red Team utilized improvisational, unusual strategies. Giving Van Riper a role as the adversary authority was a smart decision since he had dependably viewed that war as being characteristically erratic — that it depended on administrators making instinctive snap decisions. Furthermore, he maintained that customary basic leadership techniques (i.e. gauging all alternatives cautiously) were unreasonably slow for any military.

As they started the war game, members of the Blue Team, speaking to the United States, issued an ultimatum to the Red Team, demanding that they surrender. After their refusal to do so, they endeavored to incapacitate the Red Team’s correspondences with bombs. To the Blue Team's astonishment, Van Riper came up with complicated codes he used to communicate with his team members. The Blue Team presumed that it would be straightforward to anticipate what the Red Team would do — yet rapidly discovered that its forecasts were not accurate. In a solitary day, Van Riper decided to strike against the Blue Team and incapacitated most of its boats and airplanes, despite being heavily outnumbered. To some degree, like the Getty authorities being unfit to foresee that their Greek statue was a phony, the Blue Team were unfit to anticipate that Van Riper would most likely supersede their forecasts and thrash them.

A perfect example of thinking spontaneously is humorous improvisation art. In an improvisation group, members request for the suggestions of the audience, and then utilize this information to establish a skit. Indeed, improvisation appears incredibly hard, since it clearly involves making up a whole skit on a spot. However, upon close examination, it appears that improvisation is not in any way random, as one would assume. It is, rather, governed by rules. The critical lesson of the Millennium Challenge and the improvisation comedy which Van Riper participates in is that spontaneity is not random. When individuals are facing high-stake situations, like a performance or war, they act rapidly and make quick decisions — but they still follow intuitive rules.

When Riper was in Vietnam, he would hear gunshots often in the distance. Initially, he made a blunder of radioing his soldiers to confirm the gunfire; but gradually, he realized the soldiers did not necessarily know what was happening. From thereon, whenever Riper heard gunshots, he would wait for several minutes to see how things would play out. It was the best option, as he figured that it was best to allow his troops to resolve the issue themselves than to create panic by informing everyone, including the enemy, of any imminent danger.

Riper also used the lessons he had learned in war games when he decided to reduce the number of introspective explanations and long meetings. He informed his soldiers to lower the use of military jargons, such as “effects”. His technique of management was to motivate people to utilize rapid cognition; albeit not perfect, it has benefits over conventional thoughts. For instance, the author indicates that if an individual is asked to identify the person who served them coffee in the morning, he or she would most likely be able to. But if one were asked to describe the person, or even draw his or her face, they would most likely struggle to recall the unique qualities. Furthermore, the act of picking this person from a line-up may prove somewhat difficult. In other words, conscious thoughts can impede snap judgments.

Verbal overshadowing describes a situation by which rapid cognition is impacted by conscious thought. Generally, rational thoughts often overshadow snap judgments. In a brainteaser, rational thoughts are not always adequate to decipher the puzzle; it is either the person has a eureka moment by which they see the solution, or they do not see it at all. Moreover, when individuals are requested to talk through their endeavors towards deciphering the brainteasers, the chances of solving it reduces considerably. In simple words, when individuals attempt to explain their judgments, they often sabotage the likelihood of making insightful decisions.

Gladwell provides yet another example of thin-slicing. He tells a story of firefighters who were sent to contain a house fire that was thought to have started in the kitchen. These firefighters tried all they could to stop the fire, but it kept burning. All of a sudden, one firefighter had an impulse to evacuate the house; he shouted loudly for everyone to leave. After a few seconds, the floor of the room they were in collapsed. They later realized that the fire had actually started in the basement, where it was burning intensely. The firefighter made a snap judgment that saved the lives of his colleagues, without being aware of the imminent danger consciously.

During the war games in 2000, the mistake of the Blue Team was to depend too much on slow and rational deliberation. They underestimated the ability of Van Riper to improvise under pressure and stress (e.g. using secret codes to send messages); also, the members of the Blue Team were unable to improvise. They held very long meetings, created complicated plans, and argued extensively. This team extinguished its capability to make rapid decisions.

The author also presents a story of Cook County Hospital as an important example of rapid cognition and snap judgement. This hospital in Chicago also inspired a TV show called “ER”. According to Gladwell, up until the 1990s, the hospital was very disorganized: it was poorly lit; loud; and very much under-serviced (i.e. it had few nurses and catered for many patients). Because of this, nurses had a difficult time treating patients with heart problems, specifically where the standard process of diagnosing a heart problem involves asking many questions — like whether the patient has a history of diabetes, issues with cholesterol level, among others. However, the nurses never seem to have enough time to follow the standard procedures. Therefore, to avoid cases of malpractice suits as well as help patients, the nurses were compelled to continue admitting patients with heart problems, despite only a small number of the patient actually had heart diseases.

In 1996, Brendan Reilly was brought to the hospital as the chairman. Reilly was a Dartmouth University professor but wanted to impart knowledge and pass on the experience to the underfunded Cook County Hospital. Pressed for time to make improvements at the hospital, the first thing Reilly did was to create a sense of organization for the hospital, by using the work of Lee Goldman, a cardiologist. Goldman had created a decision tree, or an algorithm, for treating patients with heart diseases as efficiently and effectively as possible. It involves asking the patients a few questions, which may seem somewhat controversial. While some physicians believed that the decision tree needed more time, others thought that physicians had to utilize their observation and training to diagnose problems related to the heart rather than simply using an algorithm. To avoid a major disaster in case the method proved ineffective, he implemented this in some sections at Cook County Hospital; several months on, the method has been proven to be safer and more reliable than the traditional methods previously used. While a physician utilizing their individual decision-making approaches and training could accurately diagnose heart problems in eight percent of cases; Goldman’s method managed to achieve the same in ninety-five percent of the time.

The example of Cook County Hospital is crucial to the book because it suggests that, in some cases, the more data a physician has, the less he or she actually knows. Intuitively, people may believe that a pool of evidence is the best to approach to reaching the right decision. However, as it happens, it is often better to restrict this evidence to the main points. In the case of Goldman’s method, the evidence of blood pressure, unstable angina, ECG, and fluids in the lung/s were the essential points in the diagnosis of heart problems.


Van Riper demonstrates a magnificent case of how ad-lib and snap decisions can be essential components of accomplishment. As Gladwell shows, impeccable judiciousness and proof weighing are not generally as viable as individuals might suspect. To put it plainly, the Millennium Challenge is an incredible “contextual analysis” between the cognizant, objective personality (as shown to by the Blue Team’s military procedure) and the oblivious, natural personality (as shown to by Van Riper’s Red Team).

Gladwell contends that rationality can, at times, affect spontaneity: verbalizing thoughts can prevent a person from visualizing. However, his example may not be universally applicable — give how the conscious and unconscious parts of the human mind occupy different territories. When either intrude on one another, a problem arises. Verbal overshadowing presents how excessive rationalization undermines the general mind power. Solving brainteasers and puzzles or winning wars, in the case of Van Riper, is not necessarily an act of rationality; sometimes, using the unconscious part of the mind is the only way one can succeed.

As the firefighters’ example suggests, logical and rational decision making is disadvantageous because it can take a lot of time. When the situation is abrupt, individuals rarely consider the full evidence — and this usually leads to a decision made from the “gut”. For instance, in the Millennium Challenge, Van Riper is successful because he correctly relies on his intuition; on the other hand, the Blue Team members fail because they depended on thorough information and overthinking to make decisions.

The strategy used by Goldman and Reilly was simply putting thin-slicing into practice on purpose. By deciding to adopt a decision tree method, Reilly was essentially ordering his physicians to make critical decisions based on limited information. By shortening the process of diagnosis to a few questions, it encouraged physicians to work efficiently and quickly, thereby helping avoid the dangers of overthinking during the diagnosis process. The author acknowledges that the findings of Goldman seem counterintuitive. A person may assume that a lot of evidence is needed to make the best decisions, including — and especially — medical ones. But the author argues that, at times, more information is problematic, as excessive data can sometimes cloud a person’s judgment.

The research reiterates the primary theme of the chapter: more data is not necessarily better. More information encourages individuals to be confident in the decisions they make. It is important to understand that Gladwell is not implying that instincts are always better than rational decision-making — but, instead, stating that making the best decision involves elements of intuition and rationality.

The chapter ends with a perfect example of how excessive data harms the process of making decisions. The Millennium Challenge lesson is that intuition is important in warfare. However, the Pentagon declined to respect the power of the adaptive unconscious; rather, it pays more attention to technology and information. The author postulates that the erroneous conclusion from their Millennium Challenge greatly contributed to America’s military fiasco when they intervened in the infamous war in the Middle East during the Bush administration. The Pentagon believed that using perfect information and superior firepower would oust Saddam Hussein. However, as Blink readers have probably realized by now, American interferences in the Middle East did not go as planned — indicating that there is always some element of spontaneity and randomness in warfare.

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