surprise benefits of pseudo-vegetarianism

19 December 2005, 2:02 pm

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in fits and starts over the past two months — it’s on the library’s short-term loan list, so I request it, read as much as I can before it’s due, return it, and repeat. I don’t think it’s a bad way to read such an information-dense book; it provides opportunities to digest and reflect on Gladwell’s theses.

I don’t think he delivers on the implicit promise that has made his books bestsellers among business readers. The Tipping Point provides tools for understanding why some messages — like teen anti-smoking campaigns — don’t “stick.” But it doesn’t provide tools for making messages stick. I think that’s because societies’ response to stimuli is fundamentally chaotic. Ensuring any particular meme spreads is impossible. Even Steven Spielberg directed an unequivocal flop once.*

Blink suffers from a similar problem: it identifies situations in which rapid intuitive assessments — “thin-slicing,” in Gladwall’s parlance — are invaluable, and other situations in which they’re extrememly harmful. It doesn’t provide foolproof guidelines for distinguishing “good” thin-slicing from “bad.” Again, I don’t think it’s a soluble problem.

I’m not an expert on cognition; I’m a lay person with probably just enough information to be dangerous. But I think a major component of what makes for human intelligence is that our brains are abstract pattern-recognition machines. The engine that recognizes individual human faces is the same engine that sees animal shapes in clouds and inkblots. I think it’s always going to be subject to errors, particularly in high-stakes situations that require snap judgments: “He’s drawing a gun!” versus “He’s pulling out his wallet.”

Even if I don’t think Gladwell’s books quite live up to their hype, they’re informative, provocative, fascinating, and lucidly written.

For instance, his account of Sheena Iyengar’s research on consumer choice provided insight into something that’s intrigued me for the past decade. Iyengar found that customers given an opportunity to taste 6 jams in a store were far more likely to make a purchase than customers who had a chance to taste 24 different jams.

I’m a pseudo-vegetarian. This generally makes dining out straightforward: most of the menu is automatically excluded from consideration. I usually pick from the small set of available options rapidly and without much conscious deliberation. When I dine at a vegetarian or seafood speciality restaurant, I have a larger field to winnow. My selection process is radically different (and much slower). I typically try to find the entrée that maximizes features I like: the one with the ginger, tofu, and straw mushrooms. Sometimes I experience a kind of stress that’s unusual for me: no dish has the poblano pepper sauce, gaucomole, and melted jack cheese; I can only get different combinations of two of those ingredients. Then I feel vaguely dissatisifed with a meal that I would unhesitatingly and happily choose if I had fewer options.

Iyengar’s research suggests that this behavior isn’t just me-being-weird. Gladwell’s synthesis provides a framework for understanding it: I “thin-slice” among a few choices, but not among a dozen.

*Of course, Gladwell has certainly “tipped” his own books, so maybe, just maybe, he knows something about hidden marketing levers that he’s not sharing.

2 comments on “surprise benefits of pseudo-vegetarianism”

  1. Janet

    Interesting! I always appreciate trusted friends thinking and synthesizing stuff so I don’t have to. But, in the absence of any research or reflection, I could have told you that your menu/restaurant experiences aren’t just you-being-weird. At the minimum they are you-and-me-being-weird, as my behavior at standard vs. vegetarian or seafood restaurants is effectively identical to yours.

    Also, I feel anxious about decision-making when the entire menu is available to me. Prefering to avoid such anxiety (many years ago I moved from DC to Spartanburg, SC largely because there was too much to do in DC), I stupidly find myself avoiding the very restaurants that cater to me and offer me the widest range of yummy eating experiences.

  2. summervillain

    Fascinating. Maybe we should be given a grant to study how Meyers-Briggs personality inventories — especially the perceiving/judging axis — correlates with vegetarianism and other dietary choices that can curtail dining options.

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