Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I just finished a really good book by Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, about how, frequently, our first impressions are the best ones. This is a very readable book, not too long and not overloaded with statistics.  In other words, it doesn't read like a college dissertation.  Gladwell also wrote The Tipping Point, a book which I haven't read yet but would like to.

Gladwell cites several studies of different types which predicted outcomes based on very limited information.  For example, one experiment studied married couples discussing a seemingly innocuous subject unrelated to their marriage.  Based on facial characteristics and subtle reactions, the the leaders of the experiment were able to make remarkable predictions on the suitability of the couples (and on whether they would be married years in the future).  They were able to do this with only a 15 minute tape of the couples talking.  If a layman watched the couples talking, they seemed jovial and compatible.  But the experimenters had a checklist of very specific characteristics that they were looking for and that constituted a scorecard of sorts.

Most everyone is an expert in something.  When you are faced with a situation in your particular field of expertise, you usually can make a highly accurate appraisal almost instantaneously based on what would appear to be very little information.  But because of vast experience, you are making unconscious judgments that go into that appraisal.  That intuition is, in many cases, uncannily accurate.  And if you go on to analyze the situation too much, it muddies the situation and your appraisal becomes increasingly inaccurate.  "Thinking on it" doesn't necessarily help.

"We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding."

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

First impressions are not always the most accurate.  Counter-intuitively, going with your gut on big decisions (career, spouse) is the right choice, but making hasty choices with small things (like where to eat) is not. 

Gladwell is humorous and has a wide range of anecdotes to illustrate his points.  Overall, a very enjoyable read and one that will make you think about how you make decisions.


Laura said...

I need to learn to trust my gut more. I over-think WAY too many things that have turned out exactly the way I thought they would at first but I "thought" myself out of that outcome... I just put this on my library hold list.

dbackdad said...

Believe me ... I'm the master of "paralysis by analysis".

wunelle said...


It makes sense that we should have a faculty for making effective rapid judgments, at least about some things. Intelligence is, after all, just another survival strategy, and surely we cannot always count on the luxury of time to ruminate. (It's odd that our judgments might become less accurate with time to think, tho...)

CyberKitten said...

I *like* to think too much about things. Snap judgements and snappy comments got me in far too much trouble in my youth until I learnt to ruminate - far too much for my own good.... [grin]

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, "It's odd that our judgments might become less accurate with time to think, tho..." -- The author (and I) are not intending that as a blanket statement. There are certainly a lot of situations where in-depth analysis does improve your decisions. The implication is that it is not always the case, though. He cited the situation of a Chicago ER that improved their diagnosis and treatment of heart attack patients by "thin-slicing". "Thin-slicing" is the looking at of very specific symptoms (gleaned from a previously done statistical analysis of all heart attack patients) and quickly separating the at-risk patients from the less life-threatening conditions. Previously they had taken longer, ran more tests, and been less accurate in their diagnosis. Of course, the "thin-slicing" worked because they had a set list to look at and a body of knowledge to base it on. This is not unlike the way in which any expert quickly looks at very specific and often subtle traits and makes a quick judgment.

CK -- I think Gladwell is referring more to quick decisions than to quick comments. But, I think even our snappy retorts often have more truth to them than we want to admit.