Friday, October 22, 2010

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

This is one of the most interesting and unputdownable books I have read so far; every page has an example, an analogy, an experiment, covering diverse domains and subjects ranging from painting to sculpture, to marriage, dating, war, presidential candidate, car selling, food tasting, police operations and more…

A smart book, I must say - tells you something you already know while making you feel or believe that you are learning something you never knew before, for the 1st time.

The author first convinces you, using an example, that first impressions are correct whereas the results of detailed analysis are not. After the reader is convinced and assured, the author presents examples where first impressions proved completely misleading. Leaving the reader convincing but wondering. And then the author explains how you can train yourself to form correct first impressions.
It is something all of us know and have experienced. Isn’t it? At times, our judgment was correct. We said, ‘I knew’. At other times, we were so mistaken. And as we have grown, our first impressions are more often than before, correct, as a result of all the lessons learnt earlier.

But whatever that may be, this is a work of excellence – for the number of facts it presents, for the amount of research and travel the author has undertaken to gather information, for the way it is structured, for the way it makes you think seriously about something you hadn’t really pondered before… and more.

Blink is a book about the first 2 seconds.

The book is organized into 8 interesting chapters each of which has an intriguing title.
Each chapter takes up a story and vividly illustrates how our mind works. The book is full of experiments conducted by various people, their outcomes, examples from history etc.

In short, this is an interesting book of case studies.
Every chapter begins with an incredible story which is simply told and left there. And then the author explains how our mind works, aspects of our psychology, experiments, their results and establishes the concepts. And then using these concepts, he explains the story told earlier and completes the chapter.
A very good approach which keeps the reader hooked to the chapter till the end.

Let’s understand what point the author is trying to make and how he makes it by looking at each chapter.

The statue that didn’t look right:
Among other stories, one (the first one) is about an antique statue owned by an art dealer that a museum contemplated buying. The first impression of some art experts who saw the statue was that it wasn’t right. But after many months of careful study and several tests, the museum found the results convincing. But it turned out later that the statue was a fake.
When the art experts felt an intuitive repulsion upon looking at the statue, they were absolutely right.
In the first 2 seconds (in a single glance), they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team was able 2 understand after 14 months of study, analysis and calculation.

You don’t know why you know. But you know. You figure it out before you realize you have figured it out.

The author presents the notion off 'the adaptive unconscious' (not the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud). It is a kind of a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.
We have a decision making apparatus that makes very quick judgments based on very little information.

First point of Blink: Decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
Second point: Our unconscious is a powerful force but it is fallible. Our instinctive reactions often have to compete with all kinds of other interests and emotions and sentiments.
Third point: Our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled. We can teach ourselves to make better snap judgments.

The theory of thin slices: how a little bit of knowledge goes a long way:
A psychologist video tapes a husband and wife in conversation. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking he can predict with 95% accuracy whether that couple will still be married 15 years later. This he does by using a code for every second of the couple's conversation - assigning a number representing the specific emotion of the individuals.
If he watches a couple for 15 minutes his success rate is around 90%. Further if they looked at only 3 minutes of a couple talking, they could still predict with accuracy who was going to get divorced and who would make it.
The truth of a marriage can be understood in a much shorter time than anyone ever imagined. All marriages have a distinctive pattern, a kind of marital DNA that surfaces in any kind of meaningful interaction.

A critical part of rapid cognition known as ‘thin slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience.
When we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconscious is sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what really matters.

By looking at someone's room you can tell what they are. You needn’t talk to them or interact with them. (I disagree here)

The Locked Door: The secret life of snap decisions:
In this chapter, using a series of examples, cases and experiments the author shows how a lot of people who know, do not know how they know, sometimes to their own amazement.

Vic Braden can predict by reading the way a tennis player serves whether he is going to double fault.
Ted Williams could explain with confidence how to hit a baseball but his explanation did not match his actions.

Mary's explanation for what she wanted in a man did not necessarily match who she was attracted to in the moment, while speed dating. We have, a story telling problem. We are a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.

Then the author talks about something called 'priming'; something similar to brainwashing indirectly in order to affect the behaviour or judgment of people. Several priming experiments have been mentioned.
The suggestion is that, what we think of as free will is largely an illusion. Much of the time we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment, are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

The Warren Harding Error: Why we fall for tall, dark and handsome men:
Americans elected Warren Harding as their president simply because he was great looking; he served 2 years before dying unexpectedly of a stroke. He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.

This is the dark side of rapid cognition.
Sometimes a good deal of prejudice and discrimination determine what we think in the first 2 seconds; which is why we still associate blacks with negative qualities; also why we have tall CEO's most of the time.

Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment; which means we can change our first impressions - we can alter the way we thin slice - by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.
It requires more than a simple commitment to equality -to stop being racists, to stop preferring good looks. It requires that you change your life so you are exposed to minorities on a regular basis and become comfortable with them and familiar with the best of their culture...

Paul Van Riper's big victory: creating structure for spontaneity:
Paul Van Riper had fought the Vietnam War.

In a war game planned by the Pentagon and costing millions, Paul Van Riper was cast as an anti American rogue commander.
To everyone’s surprise, Paul dealt a blow to the American defense without access to any of the sophisticated systems that American defense had had.
And this was attributed to Paul’s correct snap judgments.

A study of nurses, intensive care units, firefighters and other people who make decisions under pressure reveals that when experts make decisions, they don’t logically and systematically compare all available options.
Detailed analysis is the way people are taught to make decisions but in real life it is much too slow. Experts size up a situation and almost immediately act, drawing on experience and intuition and a kind of rough mental simulation.

Author uses improvisation comedy as an example to illustrate the kind of thinking blink is all about. Improvisation comedy involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment without the benefit of any kind of script or plot. They take a random suggestion from the audience and then without so much as a moment's consultation make up a thirty minute play from the scratch.

Lesson - spontaneity isn’t random. 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 they have already undergone.

Perils of introspection - Paralysis of analysis.
When you write down your thoughts, your chances of having the flash of insight you need in order to come up with a solution are significantly impaired. Describing a face - in words or sketching it - will make you unable to pick it out of a police lineup.

Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.

It is assumed that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are. The truth is the opposite. All the extra information isn’t actually an advantage, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.

Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.
In good decision making, frugality matters - reduce a complex problem to its simplest elements.

When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance.

Kenna's Dilemma: The Right - And Wrong - Way to ask people what they want:
Rock musician Kenna : when his music was played on the radio as a test before recording companies invested in them, people did not like his music. But when experts - people who truly know music heard him, they loved his music.

Dick Morris who would go on to become advisor to President - was bringing into the world of politics the very same notions that guide the business world; to learn what people wanted through polling.
And polling reveals a lot about the kind of snap judgments people make.

When marketers ask consumers to give them their reactions to something - to explain whether they liked a song that was just played or a movie they just saw or a politician they just heard, how much trust should be placed in their answers?
Several examples have been given to show how people make choices without fully understanding the options before them and what motivates their choices.

1. The taste tests conducted by Pepsi titled Pepsi challenge gave results that alarmed Coke. They changed their age old formula to make Coke a little lighter and sweeter. But, the new coke failed in the market in spite of its success during the taste tests.

The sip test is not a true test but the home use test is. The result of the home use test can be the opposite of the result of sip test. In a sip test, the sweeter product will win but if taken home and taken in large quantities, the sweetness can be cloying and people would want the lesser sweeter option that they had rejected during the sip test.

Sensation transference – people transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself.
Most of us don’t make a distinction - unconsciously - between the package and the product.

2. Margarine is a white looking substitute for butter - When white in colour it wasn’t popular among people. When coloured yellow, and people were served yellow margarine (without their knowledge), people thought it was just fine.

3. Further when covered in foil, people say it tastes better than another product not covered in foil, because unconsciously people associate foil with higher quality

4. Two brands of brandy - same in quality performed differently in the market because one brand used a better looking, ornate bottle for packaging.

5. Peaches sell better in a glass container than in tin cans – ‘something like my grandmother used to make’ people said.

What happens when asked why, is that we come up with a plausible sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible sounding reason.

The snap judgments of ordinary people are different from the snap judgments of experts. The gift of their expertise is that it allows them to have a much better understanding of what goes behind the locked door of their unconscious.

Seven seconds in the Bronx: The delicate art of mind reading:
The most important forms of rapid cognition are the judgments we make and impressions we form of other people. It’s a classic case of thin slicing.
But sometimes mind reading can go terribly awry. An example given is that of police cops in 1999 who shot the wrong guy.

There is the detailed account of an experiment concerning facial expression, muscles and related emotions, the result of which proves that we are mistaken in thinking that face is the residue of emotion, that we first experience an emotion and then express it.
The process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start on the face. Facial expressions can determine emotions.

When we lose the ability for mind reading, we have the condition of autism. The ‘first impression’ apparatus is fundamentally disabled. They have difficulty interpreting non verbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words.

The author suggests that temporary autism could be the reason why people make wrong judgments about other people, like the policemen who fired at the wrong person.

Body reacts to extreme stress in a certain way: extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound and the sense that time is slowing down. Our mind when faced with a life threatening situation drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with. Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favour of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.
Basket ball superstar Larry bird used to say that at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.
The same effect is produced when people have no time or very little time but have to act.

Our unconscious thinking in one critical aspect is no different from our conscious thinking – in both, we are able to develop our rapid decision making with training and experience.

Conclusion: Listening with your eyes: the lessons of Blink:
During a screened audition of trombone players, the judges after selection were shocked to know that the one playing the music was a female and not a male. They had a strong perception that a woman could not play the trombone.
During another screened audition, an applicant who qualified as the best turned out to be Japanese which was a surprise to all who had the strong perception that a Japanese could not play with any soul or fidelity, music composed by a European.

Orchestras began to hire women as new rules of auditioning were put in place to ensure fairness. That’s when they realized how corrupted their snap judgments had been.
Because judges would unconsciously judge by appearance of the participant. They would go by confidence and body posture and all that. When screens were placed between them and the participants, the results were, needless to say, quite different.

There is a dissonance between what you see and hear.

We are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious. The power of unconscious is something that we can protect and control and educate.

We can take charge of the first two seconds.

1 comment:

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