Blink Summary and Analysis of Four: Paul Van Riper’s Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity


Paul Van Riper is a tall, imposing man who formerly served in the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam Conflict, and had a long, distinguished career in the military. He ran his squad of soldiers in a direct, concise, and confident manner. He was strict and fair – a student of war who gave clear ideas about how his men ought to conduct themselves in conduct. He was aggressive, but in a way that all those under him obeyed without question; his former soldiers all lauded his ability to lead naturally and effectively. In the spring of 2000, the now-retired Van Riper was approached by a group of senior Pentagon officials. The Pentagon was in the midst of planning the largest and most expensive war game in history to that point – dubbed Millennium Challenge ’02. According to the scenario, a rogue military commander had broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf and was threatening to throw the entire region into war. He had a considerable power base and was harboring and sponsoring multiple terrorist organizations, and was strongly anti-American. In a casting twist, Van Riper was asked to play the rogue commander.

The Millennium Challenge, as became evident a few months later, when the United States invaded Saddam Hussein-led Iraq, was a full dress rehearsal for war. In the wake of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Pentagon became convinced that conventional warfare, where two armies fought head on, would no longer be an effective method of warfare: war would take place in cities as well as battlefields, and involve economies and cultures as much it involved weapons.

There were two teams: Blue Team, which had greater intellectual resources than perhaps any army in history and essentially had every resource of the Pentagon available at their disposal. The Blue Team looked at the full array of what it could do to its opponent’s environment – political, military, economic, social, cultural, and institutional. This was all intended to make crystal clear the resources, attitudes, and intended moves of the enemy – and Van Riper was selected because he truly believed that you could not know everything about the enemy. Van Riper was not against the type of extensive analysis that the Blue Team was performing but thought that it was inappropriate in the midst of battle, where the uncertainties of war and the pressures of time made it impossible to compare options carefully and calmly. The Millennium Challenge was thus not only a battle between two armies, but also between diametrically opposed military philosophies.

On the opening day of the simulation, the Blue Team sent 10,000 troops into the Persian Gulf, parked an aircraft carrier battle group offshore the Red Team’s home country, and demanded surrender from the Blue Team – acting with utter confidence and ostensibly knowing where all of the Red Team’s vulnerabilities were and what possible moves it would make. However Van Riper did not act as the computers predicted. The Blue Team had destroyed all lines of electronic/fiber-optic communication, assuming that the Red Team would be forced to rely on easily intercepted satellite communication. Van Riper instead used messages hidden inside prayers and motorcycles to communicate. Schooled in military history, he used WWII-era methodology to circumvent the modern technology that would give away his moves.

On the second day of the game, Van Riper put a fleet of small boats in the Gulf to track the ships of the invading Blue Team navy. Then without warning, he bombarded the navy in an hour-long assault with cruise missiles. In the end, 16 American ships were at the bottom of the Gulf; had this been a real war, 20,000 American servicemen and women would have dead, without the Americans having fired a single shot. Analysts attempted to give different explanations, but none could fathom the fact that the Blue Team suffered a huge loss.

Gladwell intervenes with a shorter example from the world of improvised comedy. It involves people making very sophisticated decisions at the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind of script or plot. Such comedy depends on spontaneity, however spontaneity is not random. An improv team is successful only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice – and agrees to play a carefully defined role. Gladwell argues the Van Riper’s team came out on top not because it was smarter or luckier than the Blue Team, but because they were rigorously spontaneous.

Gladwell considers a second example that provides another degree of understanding why Van Riper's team won the Millennium Challenge. In the 1990s, Cook County Hospital changed the way its physicians diagnose patients coming to the ER complaining of chest pain. In 1996, Brendan Reilly became the chairman of the hospital’s Department of Medicine, essentially inheriting a dysfunctional, outmoded hospital. It was the place of last resort for the city’s hundreds of thousands of poor folk who were without medical insurance. Resources were scarce: there were no private rooms, no cafeteria, or private telephones. The list of problems was endless, but the Emergency Department (ED) was especially problematic. Reilly worked with his staff to develop specific protocols for efficiently treating asthma patients (Chicago was suffering from one of the worst asthma problems in the United States), and another set of protocols for treating the homeless.

From the onset, however, the question of how to deal with heart attacks was of the utmost importance. The treatment protocol was long, elaborate, and incredibly inconclusive. When it comes to chest pain, doctors gather as much information as they can, before making an estimate of how to move forward with care – however, such estimates are not very accurate. The doctors at the hospital thought they were making reasoned judgments, but in reality they were not much more than guesses. The threat of malpractice has made doctors less willing to take a chance on a patient, with the result that a small percentage of those admitted to a hospital that are suspected of having a heart attack are actually experiencing one.

Reilly’s first step in all this chaos was to turn to the work of a cardiologist named Lee Goldman. In the 1970s, Goldman got involved with a group of mathematicians to develop an algorithm that he believed would take much of the guesswork out of treating chest pain. He concluded that doctors ought to combine the evidence of tests with three urgent risk factors: (1) Is the pain felt by the patient unstable angina? (2) Is there fluid in the patient’s lungs? and (3) Is the patient’s systolic blood pressure below 100? At the end of his extensive research, no one volunteered to apply the research. No one seemed to want to believe that an equation could perform more accurately than a trained physician. But Reilly did not share the medical community’s views, as he desperately needed a method that was different and more effective: he took Goldman’s algorithm and presented it to the doctors at Cook County Hospital. The staff would use its own method of evaluating chest pain, and then use Goldman’s algorithm. They would compare the results after two years of data collection. In the end, Goldman’s rule won hands down: it was 70% more effective than the old method or recognizing heart attacks, and it was also safer. For Reilly that was evidence enough to change the evaluation system, and Cook County Hospital become one of the first medical institutions to operate completely on the Goldman algorithm for chest pain. What Reilly and his team were trying to do was provide some structure for the spontaneity of the Emergency Room. The algorithm is a rule that protects doctors from being overwhelmed by too much information.

Gladwell returns to the war game. The Pentagon is silent at first, but then reverses time: they refloat the boats at the bottom of the Gulf, telling Van Riper that the ballistic missiles he used at first were all shot down with a new kind of missile defense, and the assassinations Van Riper carried out of pro-American leaders in the region had negligible effects. In the second round of the Millennium Challenge, the Blue Team wins – there were no surprises, no insights, and no opportunities for the confusion and complications of the real world. At the end of the second experiment, the Pentagon was satisfied, as the military was transformed and the Pentagon confidently turned its attention to the real Persian Gulf a few months later.


In some sense, Gladwell's story about Van Riper is an indicator of the success of simpler, more organic methods of warfare and military tactics over increasingly technical ones. It shows that the approach involving advanced technology that the Red Team was conducting was ironically, vastly inefficient and ineffective. That the Joint Forces Command completely overhauled the original script indicates the badly miscalculated effort to win the game originally.

The efficacy of people’s decisions under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training, rules, and rehearsal. Van Riper believed that the Blue Team was so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. Concentrating only on research and planned maneuvers and stopping to consider every angle in the midst of battle hampered any real action. Van Riper's method of abandoning these rules led his team to victory because they were more open to snap decision making.

Gladwell's use of several examples in fields outside of the military, like improv comedy and medicine, mirror Van Riper's own openness to consider outsider methodology. He takes his team to the Mercantile Exchange in New York and finds vast similarities in the decision making process of traders and Marines. These examples help to bolster Gladwell's position that the adaptive unconscious is universally employed, regardless of context.

The Cook County scenario shows that extra information is not actually advantageous at all, and in fact a doctor needs to know very little to find signs of a complex phenomenon. Paradoxically, too much information hinders a doctor's ability to predict heart attacks. Gladwell also says that despite this success, there is little surprise as to why Goldman’s approach is not accepted very much – it does not make sense that doctors can do better by ignoring what seems like perfectly valid information.

Gladwell says that there are two important lessons here: that truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking, and that in good decision making, frugality matters (even the most complicated of relationships and problems have an identifiable underlying pattern). To be a successful decision maker, people must learn to edit information. Gladwell believes that the trouble arises when this process of editing is disrupted – when people do not know what to edit, how to edit, or that the surrounding environment does not allow for editing to take place.

Gladwell somewhat qualifies his stronger claims earlier in the book: he places extra emphasis on the benefit of trusting instinct and making it somewhat of a priority in an array of situations. But here he says to incorporate deliberate thinking: the algorithm is cold and calculated, and the issue that arises with Gladwell's argument is that there is little room for instinctive thinking if one is applying an equation to solve a problem.