Friday, September 30, 2011

The Science Of Being Streetwise

In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell published a book called Blink, in which he examined the surprising effectiveness of what most of us call "snap judgments", but which he re-dubbed as "thin slicing" with his usual pseudo-scientific trendiness. It turns out that quick takes on people, things and situations can be quite accurate. Common sense dictates that if a few seconds or minutes can tell you a lot, then a few hours, days, months or whatever can tell us even more - but that's not a cost-effective way of doing things. And cost-effectiveness is one of Gladwell's goals. Although Gladwell purports to write for popular science fans, he's really writing for businessmen, and all his initially fresh and exotic insights into things ultimately boil down to how you can use those things in advertising or something similarly mercenary and shallow. I think the main value Gladwell (and his followers in the corporate world) see in "thin slicing" is that you get the biggest bang for the buck in the smallest amount of time - and time, as they say, is money. Even if you are able to refine your insights into something or someone over time, your efforts will inevitably result in diminishing returns - and, besides, you might have to act quickly on what you see anyway. God knows, business bozos do like to make quick decisions in every venue from job candidate interviews to board meetings. Reflection and "deep thinking" are not so much bad, in their eyes, as simply uneconomical. The other way in which snap judgments are useful to business is in how they can be engineered in other people - in, say, customers. That's where those Madison Avenue dudes come into the picture.

However, business is not the only domain that relies on snap judgments. Early in the book, Gladwell talks about how policemen use snap judgments to identify who is lying, who is telling the truth, who has just committed a crime and who is likely to commit one in the near future. He focuses on one detective in particular who was so sharp he was practically clairvoyant, like that dude in The Mentalist. Gladwell also discusses the value of quick thinking - or, more properly, thinking without actually stopping to think - when police have to engage suspects in shootouts and the like. Snap judgments are a necessary element of what many call "situational awareness". They are also the essence of what it means to be streetwise.

Anti-intellectual folks - in sports, in business, in life in general - tend to caricature the difference beween "book smarts" and "street smarts". Academically bright people are thought to be distracted, woolly-headed creatures unaware of the social dynamics of the world around them. They can't "think on their feet", as the saying goes. Those with "street smarts", on the other hand, can. Such people, even if they have never read a book in their lives, are masters at reading people - and of taking control of any social situation. We live in an age that reveres such individuals. Be they entrepreneurs, pick-up artists, action heroes, super-salesmen or political manipulators, we worship anyone who knows instinctively how to thrive "in the moment" and to take advantage of the rest of us. Many criminals - especially con men - fall into the same category.

In truth, there is no impermeable barrier between "book smarts" and "street smarts". Smart is smart, whatever the context, and a lot of people are good at both - or good at neither.

Are you streetwise? Am I? I'd like to think at least that my "criminal radar" is okay. This power would sort of be like gay-dar, but it would help me identify crooks rather than gays. I met a few people during my pub-crawling days that struck me as psychopaths, and boy did I stay away from them. I mean, I'm still alive, aren't I? I remember when I lived in North Carolina, and my wife and I visited our favorite coffee place one Sunday morning on the main street of the town (actually, Port City Java on Front Street in Wilmington, NC). I saw some young black dude, who was sitting on a bench in front of the shop, rise up a little to shake hands with a beefy white biker dude before we went inside. I thought nothing of it then. About five minutes later, when my wife and I were sipping coffee beside the window, I saw that same black dude rise up again and shake some other guy's hand. I figured that nobody who's not mentally defective is that compulsively friendly, so I said, "Look at that guy. He's dealing..." "What?" asked my wife. "He's dealing drugs," I said. "He reaches out with the drugs, pretends to shake hands, and pulls back his hand with the money in it." "Oh," said my wife. But I know I was right. I was proud to be able to identify miscreants on the streets of our town. Pleased as freakin' punch to "out" those outlaws.

There was another time, years ago, when I was drunkenly trolling the Combat Zone for hookers. I was a deranged priapism wandering the streets of Boston. I caught sight of some Chinese chick, supposedly a pro, asking folks if they wanted "a date". About six or seven yards to her left, some guy was lurking in an alcove. A young white guy in a windbreaker, with healthy-looking skin and neatly cut hair. He was sure as hell no pimp. He seemed to fidget a little when he saw me watching him. I nodded at him as I passed, and said, "Evening, officer..." He stood stock still after that. If it wasn't so dark, I believe I would have seen him blush.

Blink (Wikipedia)
What is Blink about? (

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