Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
May 14, 2008
Malcolm Gladwell says that our first impressions, especially of significant situations, can be trusted as reliable a lot more often than we typically believe. Sometimes having too much information impedes constructive decision-making, such as ER physicians diagnosing possible heart attack victims in a busy hospital. Gladwell assures us that experience is a great teacher: we can train our minds to see the elements of otherwise fast-moving situations in slower motion, and thereby understand more clearly what we see so we can make decisions with which we will be happy. To illustrate, Gladwell gives the example of a seasoned police officer who encounters a young man brandishing a pistol. The officer quickly – and, as it turned out, accurately – sized up the potentially lethal situation, and ‘knew’ to not shoot at the young man. When the dust settled, the would-be assailant dropped the gun and was apprehended; the cop saw enough fear in the man’s face that he deduced the man would not shoot at him.
A vivid example of how too much information can hinder sound decision-making was the traditional practice of orchestra conductors (almost all of whom were male) auditioning prospective musicians while not only listening to them perform, but also watching them. This practice allowed the conductors’ anti-female gender bias to flourish whenever a woman auditioned. Once aspiring musicians were allowed to play with a screen between them and their judges, all the latter could do was listen to the musician and, as a result, more female performers were hired. Conductors didn’t need to know that the musician was female, or tall, or a visible minority; all they needed to know was whether the musician could play well.
Gladwell states, “How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.” A light went off when I read this statement: years ago I took up skydiving. After each of my first six jumps, I told friends I had no recollection of leaving the plane; in other words, I blacked out, albeit briefly, and joked it was a good thing I had no problems in the first few seconds of each of those jumps, because I was not conscious of anything. By jump number nine, however, the ‘blackouts’ ceased; I had conditioned myself to jumping out of the plane – it was no longer a ‘new’ experience - and was aware of events throughout the entire jump. I went on to do eighty jumps in total, the last 72 of which were free-fall. For most of those jumps, I focused on some target on the ground while still in the plane, and calmly keep my focus on that target while exiting the plane and during the first several seconds of free-fall, before looking for other objects to study.
I used to scoff at people who “couldn’t remember” whether they saw or did something, even though others observed them see or do the alleged act. I stopped scoffing a few years ago when I attended a Rolling Stones concert. I was standing right beside the path the band members took to leave the stage. Needless to say, I was very excited to be so close to the action; this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I stood at the rail, looking to the left, away from the stage. Suddenly, I looked ahead of me and there’s Mick Jagger, two feet away, walking from right to left. I was totally shocked at that instant. I recall reaching out and trying to pat him on the back. I believe I succeeded, but I’m only 80% certain of this – the moment was a blur, a kind of sensory overload. (Keith and Ron then walked past, and I can say with total certainty I patted each of them on the back; once Mick had walked past, I had caught on to what was happening.) To this day, I’m aggravated that I don’t know whether I patted Mick on the back. It taught me the lesson that someone who claims they ‘cannot remember’ seeing this or doing that, even though there may be witnesses who saw that person witness the event or commit the act, may indeed be telling the truth. Gladwell might say that my cognitive abilities were impaired because I wasn’t prepared for an event that I figured would never happen – being two feet away from The Rolling Stones – to actually happen.
Gladwell also discusses how stressful events appear to occur in slow motion to those involved. I recall having this sensation when I observed a woman walk out onto a street on a rainy night, and get hit by a truck. I was twenty feet away, saw the entire event, and it was as if I was watching a movie in slow motion. After the incident, time ‘sped up’ as her friend on the sidewalk, realizing what had happened, began to scream in horror.
“We have come to confuse information with understanding”. After a point, information is just clutter, and doctors, business people and army generals are sometimes seduced by the chance to pore over yet more ‘relevant’ information. Gladwell makes the counter-intuitive assertion that relatively small decisions, such as which toaster to buy, warrant reasonably detailed fact-finding and research, while major decisions, such as which violinist to hire or which person to pursue as one’s life partner, are best served by respecting one’s early assessment – one’s ‘gut instinct’. Gladwell offers the example of shoppers buying furniture at Ikea; for complicated purchases, those who thought a lot about their choices were disappointed, while those who went with their early impressions were happier. For simple purchases, the reverse tended to be true.
This book offers lots of food for thought, as does Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I will now respect my snap judgments more, and try to improve their quality by assessing how much information I really need in a given situation to make a decision with which I will be happy.