What the Dog Saw: A book review by Bob Morris

What Dog SawWhat the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Malcolm Gladwell
Back Bay Books (2009)

Note: I recently re-read this book while preparing for an interview and found the essays even in this volume even more interesting now than I did five years ago.

What Malcolm learned….

One man’s opinion, Malcolm Gladwell is at his best when writing essays for magazines (notably The New Yorker) or when writing Outliers: The Story of Success, his most recently published book. I do not share others’ trendy enthusiasm for his earlier books, notably The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Gladwell is a superb journalist but hardly an original thinker. Decades previously, Michael Kami introduced “trigger points” and Andrew Grove introduced “inflection points.” They stood atop the shoulders of giants and Gladwell stands atop theirs. As for decisions made in a blink, the list of those whose insights precede Gladwell discussion of “thinking without thinking” is too lengthy to provide here.

In Outliers, he provides a rigorous and comprehensive examination of the breakthrough research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State. One of the major research projects focuses on individuals who have “attained their superior performance by instruction and extended practice: highly skilled performers in the arts, such as music, painting and writing, sports, such as swimming, running and golf and games, such as bridge and chess.” Geoff Colvin (in Talent Is Overrated) and Daniel Coyle (in The Talent Code) also discuss the same research and in much greater depth.

In this volume, we have 19 of Gladwell’s essays, all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. They are organized within three Parts: Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius (e.g. “The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen”); Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses (e.g. “Million-Dollar Murray: Why Problems Like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve Than Manage”); and Personality, Character, and Intelligence (e.g. “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy”). In the Preface, Gladwell observes, “Curiosity about the inner life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.”

The title of the book is also the title of one of the essays in which Gladwell provides a profile of “The Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan, the owner of the Dog Psychology Center in South-Central Los Angeles whose television program is now featured on the National Geographic channel. Although a long-time dog owner, I did not know – until reading this article – that dogs really are interested in humans. Interested, observes anthropologist Brian Hare, “to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball.” Apparently to an extent no other animal can, a dog can “read” humans like the proverbial open book. What they “see” determines how they will react.

The key to Millan’s effectiveness with dogs is his understanding of their need for exercise, discipline, and affection. What he calls an “epiphany” occurred when he realized that they have their own psychology. For him, he realized this, it was “the most important moment in his life, because it was the moment when he understood that to succeed in the world he could not be just a dog whisperer. He needed to be a people whisperer.” According to Gladwell, “A dog cares, deeply, which way your body is leaning. Forward or backward? Forward can be seen as aggressive; backward – even a quarter of an inch – means nonthreatening. It means you’ve relinquished what ethologists call an intentional movement to proceed forward.” Ethologist Patricia McConnell and the author of The Other End of the Leash adds, “I believe they pay a tremendous amount of attention to how relaxed our face is and how relaxed our facial muscles are, because that’s a big cue for them with each other.”

Gladwell seems to have an insatiable curiosity about individuals, situations, and locations that may be, at least unitially, of little interest to others…until he shares what he has learned about them. Ketchup, for example. It is essential to my enjoyment of burgers, meatloaf, and french fries and yet I assumed that all ketchup is the same. Not so! In “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Gladwell explains that tomato ketchup “is a nineteenth-century creation – the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged outof a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in the late-nineteenth century condiments.” When I first read this essay in 2004, I was tempted to stop at this point. A debate about benzoate? A condiment controversy? Who cares? It is to Gladwell’s credit that he rewarded my continuing to read the article by providing some truly interesting information about a subject in which I had little (if any) prior interest.

The next article in the anthology, “Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster Into an Investment Strategy,”an article first published in 2002. Over a period of many months, Gladwell spent a great deal of time with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder and CEO of a hedge fund, Empirica Capital. “Taleb likes to quote David Hume: `No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.’…[Taleb] has constructed a trading philosophy predicated entirely on the existence of black swans, on the possibilty of some random, unexpected event sweeping the markets. He never sells options, then. He only buys them. He’s never the one who can lose a great deal of money if GM stock suddenly plunges. Nor does her ever bet on the market moving in one direction or anitger. That would require Taleb to assume that he understands the market, and he doesn’t.” Years later, he wrote a book he called The Black Swan and during the subsequent financial crisis of 2008-2009 “made a staggering amount of money for his fund.”

In this article and in all of the others, Gladwell demonstrates the skills of a world-class cultural anthropologist as he seeks out information from a wide variety of sources, interviews authorities on the given subject, observes behavior of those involved in the given activities, and then explains to the extent possible – in layman’s terms – the meaning and significance of what he has learned. Each article is a gem. Together in one volume, they are a treasure.

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