Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Book Report: Blink

I am a big fan of The New Yorker magazine and one of my favorite staff writers with The New Yorker is Malcolm Gladwell. Recently I read his latest best seller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Gladwell opens the book by describing an episode in which the Getty Museum in Los Angeles was approached by an art dealer who wanted to sell the musuem a statue said to date from the sixth century B.C. for $10 million. The museum was careful. They had the provenance checked by legal experts who examined reams of documents; they had a geologist examine the surface with a high-resolution microscope and take core samples. Everything checked out. Yet, art experts who looked at the statue said it didn't look right. One said there was something about the fingernails that he couldn't quite articulate. One, Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said the first word that came to his mind when he saw the statue was "fresh." Eventually, the Getty convened a special symposium of experts and the consensus, much of it based on inexplicable factors, was that the statue was fake. Eventually, it was discovered that the letters establishing the provenance were fake, and the statue had been forged in Rome in the early 1980s.

Gladwell has scores of other examples in the book of scores of intuitive (he does not use the word "intuition" because he says it carries the connotation of emotional and "irrational" and he does not believe that these snap judgments are "irrational") decisions that turn out to be more correct than carefully thought out and deliberated judgments. Another example he gives is of doctors in the emergency room at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, reducing the number of factors they consider when deciding whether someone is having a heart attack, with the result that their decisions are made not only quicker, but more accurately.

Gladwell calls the process, often made in the first two seconds of confronting a problem, "rapid cognition." He says that we do it all the time, unconsciously, in meeting people, deciding whether we like them, for example. He quotes extensively from research done by John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, who studied facial reactions. He studied more than 3,000 married couples and then notated the different emotional nuance in their facial expressions. He discovered that if he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether the couple will still be married 15 years later. If he studies them for 15 minutes, his success rate is still around 90 percent. But surprisingly, a professor working with Gottman discovered that watching the couple for just three minutes still permitted impressive accuracy in predicting whether they would stay together or not.

Gladwell says the process, also described as "thin slicing;" allows the brain to quickly make decisions with the bare amount of information necessary. We all do it, sizing up people we meet; deciding whether we have time to make a right hand turn in front of an on-coming vehicle, but we have been taught that is not the right way to do things. Truly wise people, we believe, take their time; do not make snap judgments; gather all the evidence and then decide.

When we were looking at the house in which we lived for 15 years immediately prior to this house, I made one of those "thin slicing" decisions. The minute we walked into the living room, I said, "We're buying this house." It was hard to explain why, but I liked the feeling I got from the house. I liked the proportions of the room and the light. Our realtor, a friend, insisted that we look at some more houses before we made an offer, so we spent the rest of the day looking at about 15 more houses, but I knew it was a waste of time. We were going to buy the first house.

Gladwell's book is refreshing in presenting a different paradigm about making decisions than we are used to, yet, my intuition cries out to be cautious about his approach. What about all the times when our first impressions are wrong? We have all met people we didn't think we would like, whom we find out are very compatible. Con men depend on being able to make good first impressions; to talk a good game. Gladwell, himself, gives an example where thin slicing didn't work, the case of the three New York City policemen who shot and killed a young man because they thought he was going for a gun and all he was doing was pulling out his wallet.

"Blink" as a way of making decisions is useless if one can't be sure that it is going to be the right decision. Gladwell's answer to that criticism is that while making snap decisions is no guarantee that the correct decisions are made, under the right circumstances those decisions have as good or better chance of being correct than more deliberative ones.

I found the book interesting and exciting to read because it brought a fresh approach to an old problem -- how do you make decisions? It is a small book, less than 300 pages, so can be read in little more than an instant. I gave it five stars.


rdl said...

I give this post 5 stars. As to how i make decisions - agonize. An old friend from college used to call me Indecision Incarnate.

Amishlaw said...

I can't decide how I make decisions.

Patry Francis said...

Interesting what you say about buying your house. I felt the same about both my current home and my previous one. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was the place I was supposed to be.

The Decider said...

Regarding Blink, I tried to explain to you about intuitive face-reading, heart-reading, which you mislabel "mind-reading" and made fun of me.

Nobody ever believes me about anything. I exude a certain lack of authority, but it's an illusion, a cover, a defensive disguise that protects me from consequences, I suppose.

I should post this on my blog instead of on your comments pages.

I think I'm jealous of your blog.

Amishlaw said...

Well, the decider, there is a difference between "face reading" and "heart reading." Faces can be read; hearts can only be guessed at. And, as Gladwell admits, thin slicing can result in wrong decisions. So, if you can't be sure your method works every time, what good is it?