Thoughts on Blink

I just got back from vacation in France. Showing great restraint, I will resist the temptation to rant about the continuing lack of customer service there (note: avoid renting from Hertz in France when possible, and most certainly at CDG).

Instead, I’ll talk about the book on read while flying: Blink by Malcom Gladwell (also author of The Tipping Point).

I was a big fan of The Tipping Point and thus approached Blink with the same trepidation with one approaches any sequel (e.g., Die Hard II). This, in fact, explains why it took me over a year to get around to reading it.

Blink is all about the power of our unconscious mind. Gladwell details numerous rather stunning experiments that show our unconcious mind has significant, generally unknown and untapped, powers:

  • When pulling cards from two decks, when one deck is loaded with bad cards, people will show physical stress signs when drawing from the loaded deck long before they actually realize that it is loaded with bad cards.
  • Experts shown just three minutes of a newly married couple discussing a controversial topic can predict with 80%+ accuracy whether they will remain married in 10 years.
  • Experts shown just a few minutes of a doctor interacting with a patient can predict with high accuracy which doctors will be sued more often than others.
  • “Priming” people by lacing words of a certain genre (e.g., old words, polite words) into a simple English quiz biases their subsequent behavior. For example, biasing a test with “old” words will make them walk more slowly when leaving the exam. Biasing it with polite words will cause them to wait longer (in his example, up to the maximum ten minutes) before interrupting a conversation so they can leave.
  • Students shown just a few seconds of a professor teaching a class will rate him/her virtually the same as students who take a semester-long class.

It is worth reading the book to learn about these studies alone. But having spent most of my career in information technology, it was the sections related to information overload and information processing that most interested me.

Those of us in IT have an implicit assumption that more information is better. Just look at some the taglines used by BI vendors over the years.

  • Cognos: Better Decisions Every Day.
  • SAS: The Power To Know.
  • Informatica: Now You Know.

In fact, neither Cognos nor SAS (nor anyone else in the category) sells software that explicitly addresses either knowledge or decision making. They sell software that produces information. The logic chain of the marketing is: more information = better decisions.

But is it so? Blink suggests not.

Gladwell details a war game done by the Army where an abundance of information caused commanders to miss a sneak attack. He starts the book with the case of a fake statue purchased by the Getty Museum where, despite gut reactions from experts that something was wrong (e.g., one expert said it looked “too fresh”), a pile of detailed reports (e.g., mineral aging, rock source, style) managed to convince the experts to disregard their instincts and believe the statue was legitimate.

He goes further to show how the human body reacts to moments of high stress with a “selective autism” whereby we shut down many information gathering channels and focus only on the immediate problem by getting testimony from police officers invovled in shootings. In a crisis, it seems, less information is better than more.

My problem with the book is that it seems to say.

  • You have this amazing set of subconcious abilities that you didn’t know you had.
  • But you shouldn’t use them because you’d then be prejudicial — you might vote for Warren Harding because he “looked presidential” or you might reject a female trombonist because you’re unconciously wired to believe it’s a male instrument.

If you want to conduct fair orchestra try-outs, then do them blind, behind a screen. (It wasn’t clear what you were supposed to do to vote correctly!)

So I found the book to end rather abruptly, without ever attempting to prescribe how one should apply this newfound knowledge. Since Gladwell doesn’t do so, I’ll take my own swag at it:

  • Be aware that you have these powers.
  • Be aware when you overrule them. Don’t let piles of data completely drown out a gut instinct. Know that in certain situations, response speed and an expert’s gut instinct beat piles of data and anlysis.
  • Beware that these powers are fickle and fragile. They may be as misprogrammed in your head as an irrational bias against female trombonists. Critical think your gut reactions.

To make the best decisions, try to find the right way to combine data-driven and gut-instinct decision making.

For other interesting books on decision making, check out Decision Traps (the classic), Winning Decisions (the sequel/rewrite, with title recast in a positive light), or Smart Choices.

The New York Times review of Blink can be found here.

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