This collection of quotes is about finding a balance between the stories we tell ourselves, and the decisions which make us act.
Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way.
We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.
There are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.
There are times when we demand an explanation when an explanation really isn’t possible, and doing so can have serious consequences.
People are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say ‘I don’t know’ more often.
Jumping to a conclusion can mean a person has stopped thinking.
We are not helpless in the face of our first impressions. They may bubble up from the unconscious – from behind a locked door inside of our brain – but just because something is outside of awareness doesn’t mean it’s outside of control.
Insight is not a lightbulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.
In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning. [from Paul Van Riper, US Marine Lieutenant General, Retired]
There is a kind of automatic tendency among physicians to believe that a life-or-death decision has to be a difficult decision. Doctors think it’s mundane to follow guidelines. It’s much more gratifying to come up with a decision on your own. Anyone can follow an algorithm. The algorithm doesn’t feel right. [from Arthur Evans]
The irony, though, is that the very desire for confidence is precisely what ends up undermining the accuracy of a decision. Feed extra information into the already overcrowded equation they are building in their heads, and they get even more muddled.
When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad… Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.
Thin-slicing has to be done in context… It is hard for us to explain our feeling about unfamiliar things. The first impressions of experts are different. By that I don’t mean that experts like different things than the rest of us – although that is undeniable. When we become an expert in something, our tastes grow more esoteric and complex. What I mean is that it is really only experts who are able to reliably account for their reactions.
Mind-reading failures happen to all of us. They lie at the root of countless arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. And yet, because these failures are so instantaneous and so mysterious, we don’t really know how to understand them.
The information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind. In a certain sense, it is what is going on inside our mind. The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process… The face is like the penis. It has a mind of its own.
All of us gravitate towards things that mean something to us, and for most of us, that’s people.
When you remove time, you are subject to the lowest-quality intuitive reaction… Our powers of thin-slicing and snap judgments are extraordinary. But even the giant computer in our unconscious needs a moment to do its work.
Malcolm Gladwell has a gift in finding those personal stories that reflect both the everyday moments of our lives and the deeper mechanisms of our minds. He was born in England, lived much of his early life in Canada, and is now a journalist and staff writer for the New Yorker. He has written The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers andWhat the Dog Saw:And Other Adventures.
Below is a TED talk in which Gladwell discusses pasta sauce, how we embraced democratic diversity, and how we rejected the idea of universals in food.
Blink is a book about the studies done by psychologists that allow us to peek into the inner workings of decision-making and intuitive leaps. We make snap choices and first impressions instantaneously, sometimes without conscious reason or deliberate intent. But we have an incredibly difficult time in actually knowing or expressing what we actually want, according to Gladwell. And yet, when it’s in front of us, we jump at it. Gladwell examines what’s going on in that jump.
Gladwell’s focus is on how we can use these new understandings for the practical sides of our lives — how we choose to vote for political candidates, how we pick products to buy at the grocery store, how police handle stressful situations, and how to know what we’re attracted to in a date. While reading this book, I found a lot of Gladwell’s ideas had consequences for religious thought as well.
Blink is about 250 pages in length, divided into an introduction and five chapters. Gladwell has a very comfortable touch with the language. The writing feels like well-informed conversation. Instead of worrying about the exactitudes of grammar, he is writing for what sounds about right and what gets his point across. As a result, even if he dips into something academic here and there, his conversation is still widely accessible. This is not a technical read but instead a starting point for the curious reader that’s asking, “Just what are professionals doing about the unconscious side of our lives?”
One of Gladwell’s main points is the theory of thin-slicing.John Gottman is a psychologist that can predict (with better than 90% accuracy) if a couple will end up divorced from just a few minutes of observation. His success rate doesn’t come from mountains of data, but instead by picking up micro-emotions in the couple’s interactions. Sometimes it’s just a matter of noticing a recurring level of contempt in the tones of their voices. A lot of research and careful thought and hours of practice went into Gottman’s ability, but the key was never in the compilation of complex information. Instead, it’s about the ability to focus in on the key details.
This idea of thin-slicing, casting away mountains of dirty data to concentrate on the manageable nuggets of gold, can be taught, according to Gladwell and Gottman. But this doesn’t mean we can be sloppy with how we do it. We need to really think about which good little specks of information to keep, and that means careful study and thorough practice.
Snap decisions almost always have an unconscious element. This can be enormously powerful and useful in terms of how we act or react, but this unconscious mechanism can be affected by priming influences, prejudices or biases, and in essence, not knowing ourselves very well. What’s even more troublesome is that if we consciously try to explain our unconscious choices, we create just as many problems. But there is still hope. We can allow the unconscious to be what it is, while still consciously reflecting on the world we make around us.
Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions – we can alter the way we thin-slice – by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions. It requires that you change your life so that you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture so that when you want to meet, hire, date, or talk with a member of a minority, you aren’t betrayed by your hesitation and discomfort. Taking rapid cognition seriously – acknowledging the incredible power, for good and ill, that first impressions play in our lives – requires that we take active steps to manage and control those impressions. (p.98)
In order to examine how we can control the experience and environment, Gladwell dives into the worlds of military commanders, improvisational theater, and hospital emergency rooms. The contrast is intriguing. For all three, there are lessons about using only important information and encouraging inspired play within the rules of the environment. The first impressions and rapid cognition of experts are, in essence, different than the regular public’s impressions because experts have committed to the discipline, practice and dynamics involved in a field of study. As a result, they have a deeper resource of experiences and vocabulary that has affected both their conscious and unconscious minds. But maybe what is still important is that the experts maintain an attitude of play within that field of study. Jumping to a fixed conclusion can mean a person has stopped thinking. But if there is a framework for decision-making that uses key information with experience and spontaneity, then a person can take a leap while still keeping their wits about them.
So, what are the lessons of Blink?
Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.To be a successful decision maker, we have to edit. In decision-making, frugality matters.(p. 141-2)
Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes. (p. 253)
In some respects, this book boils down to a fancier argument for good, plain, open and rigorous education. But it made me wonder about the religious conversation around the natural vs supernatural.
One of Gladwell’s illustrations comes from a firefighter who swore he had ESP. In one instance, the firefighter ran into a kitchen with his team, doused the room, but then found the fire and heat unchanged. The story that the firefighter tells is one of immediately thinking “Danger!”
He ordered his team out of the building. Moments later the floor collapsed. The heart of the fire was in the basement.
The firefighter’s intuition could also be explained using the environmental clues, the firefighter’s knowledge and experience of house fires, and thin-slicing or rapid cognition. But, what seems important to me is the firefighter’s ability to act on the rapid cognition more than his subjective explanation or the objective explanation. If the firefighter had simply pushed aside his intuitive feeling of danger as being irrelevant, or chose not to believe in what his unconscious might have been telling him, there wouldn’t have been a story to tell.
In the heat of the moment, we want to be able to trust our intuitions, but if Gladwell is right then much of our intuitive strength comes from the unconscious workings of our brains – things that we should maybe not take credit for or think we have direct control over. And all the more, those mechanisms don’t work if we try to make them, or equate them, to conscious processes.
Gladwell’s ideas could potentially frame this conversation in a more productive way– conscious storytelling and unconscious intuitions. It isn’t so much one versus the other, but how the two are used together to coordinate meaning and action.