K.'s Reviews > What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jan 29, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: business, pop-psyche, sociology
Read from January 29 to February 26, 2011

In What the Dog Saw, Gladwell offers a treasure chest of gems, each shining brightly on their own. In each essay, Gladwell usually starts with one puzzling situation and then adds information and other narratives to complicate the topic. Then the first situation resurfaces midway and at the conclusion, helping to bring the topic to closure. Most of the time, his underlying thesis runs along the lines of "Wow, things are a lot more complicated or a lot more simple than they seem." He's obsessed with patterns -- finding them when they are invisible; complicating them if they are widely accepted.

I've been reading all of Gladwell's books, mainly because he comes up in conversation so often. I wanted to weigh in. This book is his fourth published, but it contains essays published before he started doing book-length works. As I said in a review of one of his books, I feel as though his book chapters could be shuffled because he struggles to impose an overarching structure. This collection of essays showcases him in his element; gone is the awkwardness that I find in his book-length works.

I read all his works in a large part to answer this question: "Why is Gladwell so popular?" Gladwell's writing is tied to a specific moment in time. He's responding to the challenges of the information age--a moment in time where people walk around with hand-held computers and constantly face the task of making judgements about what information is important and what is trivial. He's talking to readers who are drowning in data coming in tidal waves off various screens. Gladwell is throwing them a line. "Here, hold on to this truism, this observation, this law of human behavior. Stick with me, and you'll keep your head above water."

At first glance Gladwell seems to only offer comfort by pointing out patterns amid seeming chaos. Not so. He most often cautions against imposing patterns where none exist. Gladwell uses examples here and in his book-length works of inaccurate patterns imposed in fields as diverse as these: a) military intelligence b) stock market analysis c) criminal profiling d) cancer detection, e) nuclear power plants, f) animal control, and g) the staffing decisions for filling corporate positions, political seats, orchestra musician positions and football teams. I suspect that he sells a lot of books to people who are hoping to impose order on things, people and ideas. He's very popular with the business set. But if you pay closer attention, Gladwell makes quiet concessions that despite all this will to order, we are defeated by chaos, whimsy, serendipity, folly, and gremlins. (OK, he didn't list gremlins directly.) I don't think he's telling us to abandon the drive to predict and control, but he's certainly pointing out the hubris in believing that we can do so. Consequently, I will now file something with a little fear and trembling. But before I do, here are some specifics, motivated by my will to order the details of his book.

"The Pitchman" describes the charismatic Ron Popeil, inventor and demonstrator of the Veg-o-Matic. Gladwell describes this amazing pitchman and others of his ilk, contrasting them with actors and ending with the syngergy created when Popeil's methods met live television.

"The Ketchup Coundrum" describes how various foods are developed, tested and marketed, but the central example explains why ketchup sells for staying focused whereas mustard and spaghetti sauce have diversified.

"Blowing Up" contrasts two methods of investing on Wall Street--finding patterns and banking on chaos.

"True Colors" draws the curtain back from the marketing strategies for hair coloring, revealing something about the mind of American women and how the women's movement made ripples through this market.

"John's Rock Error" explains the rationale of the Pill's inventor as he worked to resolve the science of birth control with his faith as a practicing Catholic.

"What the Dog Saw" describes how dogs are highly sensitive to the body language of humans, which explains why Ceasar Milan focuses on training owners as a way to better train dogs.

"Open Secrets" retraces the signs of Enron's risky practices and explains why people didn't see what became so apparent after its fall.

"Million Dollar Murray" provides shocking data on how the current policies on homelessness actually costs society a great deal of money.

"The Picture Problem" presents the complexities of properly reading mammographies, making screening for this type of cancer particularly challenging.

"Something Borrowed" discusses the gray areas in intellectual property and Gladwell's own experience of having his words sampled (without credit) into another person's work.

"Connecting the Dots" bears some similarity to the pattern problems discussed in the Enron article and the mammography article in its discussion of how challenging it is to predict acts of war and terrorism--not because of lack of information but because of an overabundance of it.

"Blowup" again talks about the issue of information overload, this time in the safety procedures put in place in the space program. Even though the O-rings were viewed as a trouble spot for any space flight, the risk-benefit analysis employed allowed the Challenger to launch, which resulted in tragedy.

"Late Bloomers" contrasts two forms of genius: the young, experimental types vs. the older, practice-makes-perfect type. The examples of Picasso vs. Cezzanne crystalize his theory, but this essay contains more examples for good measure.

"Most Likely to Succeed" describes the challenge talent scouts have in predicting an athlete's performance in the NFL based on his performance in college football. It turns out that the two games are vastly different, requiring a different set of skills for success.

"Dangerous Minds" compares the work of criminal profilers to the work of psychologists, detectives, psychics and other who seek to find a connection between crime and criminal.

"The Talent Myth" suggests that the value placed on talent has set up some companies and sports teams to overlook other important aspects of their "players." Gladwell examines the corporate culture of a handful of companies, such as Enron, Proctor & Gamble, and Southwest--each time looking at how the leaders evaluate performance, personality and group dynamics.

"The New-Boy Network" hones in on the job interview as an information-gathering task. He surveys psychologists, human resource directors, job applicants and bosses in an effort to describe the dynamics of the interview.

"Troublemakers" examines the stereotypes about dangerous dog breeds and the statistics for fatal bites. As he did in the title essay about Milan's work with dogs, Gladwell moves his gaze from examining the dog to examining the environment fostered by the dog's owner to ask whether or not banning particular breeds really serves as the best response to the problem of dangerous breeds.

41 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/25/2011 page 314
03/07/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Thanks for this cogent, detailed analysis. Gladwell has seemed charlatan-ish to me (and I was justified in going with my snap judgment, wasn't I?). I think I've been put off by the way people read him (and possibly the way his work is marketed as well), but, based on your description, he sounds more interesting than I thought.

message 2: by K. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K. Robert: Yes, I think people read him so that they can control the choas of the information age and so they can sound smart at parties and business lunches by being exposed to his popularization of business theory, sociology, and psychology. I am often curious about extremely popular texts. (For example, I read the first two Twilight novels just to weigh in; that was enough for me to judge why people love them and enough to make me furious and annoyed, so I stopped there.) With Gladwell, I pressed on to read all of them. Because his books seemed written by someone who excelled at the essay form, I kept going. I do think he should stick with essay-length works, but people are buying his books, so he'll probably keep doing that. I would be interested in seeing him talk more directly about the whole will-to-order vs. chaos problem, but most of his readers prefer the concrete, so I don't think that will happen. I may just read book reviews of his next work. We'll see.

message 3: by Robert (new)

Robert I think I'm always a little skeptical about writing on topics like these because epistemology is so fundamentally challenging, and yet so commonly glossed over. The basic problem of desire infecting reason is a deeply tangled Gordian knot, so to speak, and I'm suspicious of anyone who claims to have the magic knife. But then, I haven't even read any Gladwell, so I'm really not in a position to fairly judge.

message 4: by K. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K. Judge away. I frequently have big opinions on works I have not read. And, yes, epistemology is a big, fat mess. I have watched the nature-nurture pendulum swing like crazy over the last 100 years, producing some wild theories that come off like phrenology pretty quickly. But it's hard not to be a product of the age. Computers really pushed the metaphors. Now evolutionary psychology is having a hey day. Now that I'm this old (almost 50), I can see theories fluxuate like hemlines in Paris. It's a bit entertaining where before I would break out in a sweat over competing paradigms. I'd still like to see him examine his own assumptions, but maybe he doesn't want to go meta.

James Good overview - having taken a long time to read the book it's nice to get something concise to jog my memory as to what it was all about. Thanks!

back to top