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The author of 'The Tipping Point' returns with a book about the science of leaping to conclusions

Ever quickly sized up a situation and just known what action to take - or had a startlingly clear first impression of a stranger that later turned out to be preternaturally astute?

You may have jacked into what Malcolm Gladwell calls "the giant supercomputer in [your] unconscious." To get to know that mental motherboard, you might consider enlisting Gladwell as your IT support man.

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In "Blink," Gladwell cleanly decodes the science of rapid cognition, those snap judgments made with only the subtlest clues. Some of his examples:

• A curator sees a Greek statue as fake despite persuasive evidence to the contrary.

• A tennis coach watches a player toss up a ball and knows that on contact it will streak into the net.

• A behavioral expert watches couples interact briefly and predicts correctly which will divorce eventually.

Such decisions may seem arbitrary, even arrogant. When they present themselves, most of us reject them as hunches. To make them any more than a starting point in a complex decisionmaking process seems rash.

And true enough, Gladwell writes, they can lead us astray if they're rooted, for example, in cultural prejudices. For instance, he unwinds the tragic miscues that led to the shooting of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999, and he notes that his own brief - erroneous - detention as a rape suspect was the impetus for the book. But he maintains that the science of leaping to conclusions can be learned and controlled.

"The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift magically given to a fortunate few," he writes. "It is an ability we can all build for ourselves." The key is to understand and enhance a natural human adeptness at "thin slicing," picking up on patterns in situations and the actions of people based on very narrow slices of experience.

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Mastery of thin slicing represents more than a parlor trick. Gladwell cites successful athletes, generals, police officers, and physicians who yield to the "adaptive unconscious." They trust what they know, instead of succumbing to "paralysis through analysis."

Gladwell, a New Yorker writer whose bestseller "The Tipping Point" (2000) analyzed viral marketing and neatly labeled the moment at which a perception gains sufficient strength to alter reality, again shows himself to be a consummate case-builder.

Readers who love marketing tales will enjoy his description of the Pepsi Challenge and the halting introduction of the (now wildly popular) Herman Miller chair. Each provides an example of how companies try to manipulate first impressions with varying degrees of success.

In one fascinating section involving strawberry jam, Gladwell describes an experiment in which consumers were invited to rank 44 different jams according to specific texture and taste criteria. The results were very similar to those found by a panel of food experts.

Then another nonexpert group was asked to rank the jams. But this time, they had to write out detailed explanations of their reasons. Result: The rankings were turned on their head. A clear winner in the first polls ended up last, and other top finishers were lost in the shuffle.

Gladwell likens the experiment to a similar one he had described, "where introspection destroyed people's ability to solve insight problems. By making people think about jam, [the testers] turned them into jam idiots." Forcing the consumers to carefully describe their preferences had, in fact, clouded their ability to know their own minds.

Such overriding analysis can carry surprising social costs. Gladwell concludes his book with a story about the Munich Philharmonic, which in 1980 stubbornly refused to accept the results of its own blind audition - musicians performed behind a screen - when it gave them one particular winner.

A trombonist who had bowled them over turned out to be a woman, and at least part of the team - a group so impressed that it had sent other candidates away without playing - began inventing flaws that their unprejudiced expertise had not seen.

A court decision kept the musician in her new job. And the episode, Gladwell writes, revolutionized the way orchestras are built.

With that, Gladwell leaves readers pondering the supercomputer at their disposal with a cautionary note about abusing its power: "It doesn't seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can protect people fighting wars, or manning emergency rooms, or policing the streets from making mistakes."

That could be an invaluable tool for a split-second world.

Clay Collins is a Monitor staff writer.