If You Blink, Will You Miss?
Malcolm Gladwell's popular new book is about the power of snap judgements and the ways in which people develop the ability to make them. Can—and should—people make typical business decisions in the blink of an eye?
The blinkers commenting on this month's column have it. But not without some strong caveats. All of which raise added questions. But what did you expect?
Most readers and non-readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, are willing to accept the premise that there is a time and place for "thin slicing" that leads to quick decision making based on sense borne of experience. As Kathryn Aiken said, "I believe that those who can 'thin slice' successfully have been practicing a skill, such as decision analysis or problem solving, for years...I also believe that a gut instinct is built, not born." V. A. Emuang commented, "I think vast exposure to life, wide-ranging experiences, and a courageous, positive attitude allows one to blink or thin-slice with better success." In fact, some think that the future requires blink. As Skip Corsini put it, "I believe a person with the attention span of a hummingbird who really knows his or her business is better prepared to deal with the world as it has become than someone who has to have every single fact lined up before making a decision."
On the other hand, there were some dissenters. According to Peter Schaible, "A careful reading of Blink reveals that snap decisions can just as often be incorrect, even dangerous." August Specter expressed a clinical concern when he commented, "I am very concerned about employees/managers who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)...Often such persons are very convincing in their communication and often are correct; however, they may be very wrong due to their lack of correct analysis."
Others were concerned about the appropriate circumstances in which "blink" is practiced. According to Maris Martinsons, "There is strong evidence to suggest that selections a) within a specified domain of expertise, b) involving a small number of choices, and c) ranging from simple to a moderate level of complexity, can be made effectively using an abbreviated decision-making process." Steve Carnevale puts it more graphically: "I think blink is very dangerous. Read the book Fooled by Randomness. The author does a good job of explaining that our brain is great at pattern recognition, but not suited to statistical analysis...You need to carefully determine when to blink."
One argument put forth against blink was that its use makes poor decisions more difficult to defend. As Harlyn Sianturi put it, “Blink happens and it may be practiced by business leaders all over the world. However, it will remain less defensible in public and in the judicial system if it fails."
Several respondents provided food for thought, always welcome here. Deepak Alse speculated, "I wonder if there is such a thing as 'group gut feel?'" David Martin said that "A good manager also knows which decisions deserve more formal analysis," suggesting a question of whether we spend enough time in formal programs, such as the MBA, training prospective managers to sort out those decisions requiring blink from those requiring more formal analysis. As Michael Bernstein said, "The case study approach ...misses the critical element that in the real world many of the relevant facts, opinions, people, and so on are not laid out for us before we have to act." What do you think?
I've been asked so frequently if I have read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, that I feel as if I may have been one of the last to do so. Gladwell's book is about the power of snap judgements and ways that people develop the ability to make them. Primary among these is the ability to "thin slice," that is, to know exactly what to look for in an individual's behavior, in authenticating a rare object, or in addressing a situation under examination. To "thin slice" is to be able to decide quickly based on, among other things, a small sample of information and the suppression of subtle and slowly-developed biases. In fact, Gladwell's examples suggest that added information and individuals' biases often get in the way of good decision making. In part, it's a reflection of what we often term "analysis paralysis" in MBA-speak.
A distant cousin to thin slicing in our management curricula of the past forty years has been the revival of Bayesian statistics, the science of decision making based on probabilities derived from very small samples of data. The Bayesians in some ways freed decision makers from the burden and expenses (in terms of money, but especially in terms of time) of large-sample information gathering and analysis.
In Gladwell's terms, thin slicing and blink take place "behind a locked door" in our brains, one that he suggests resides somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious. (This suggests that the subtitle—"the power of thinking without thinking"—may depend on one's definition of thinking.) Most of those who are able to practice blink are unable to describe how they do it, any more than an artist can describe how he or she produces a work of fine art. But many believe that it is a learned behavior. In fact, some of the experts described in the book apparently gained their ability to thin slice through extensive research, observation, and practice. For example, a marriage counselor, by breaking down films of couples talking with each other, carefully categorizing behavior patterns, and doing this for years, has prepared himself (and trained others) to predict accurately, with just three minutes of viewing time, whether a marriage will succeed or fail. Rarely, it seems, is "thin slicing" innate.
Our MBA students often like to think that they are practicing blink. It goes by the common name of "gut feel." For years, their instructors have expended a great deal of energy trying to get them to base their judgements on evidence versus snap judgements. Will "gut feel" now gain newfound credibility under the banner of "blink" being practiced by untrained amateurs? Or is it possible that, slowly by slowly, a case-oriented curriculum involving hundreds of case studies helps an MBA candidate gain the capability to thin slice? Or is the typical business decision so much more complicated and less repetitive than, say, evaluating the authenticity of a rare object, that a manager never gains the ability to thin slice with any degree of reliability? In other words, is "blink" a behavior particularly suited to rather simple binary decisions? If this is the case, why is it that some executives seem able to make better-quality snap judgements than others while gaining the value of speed in the process? What do you think?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, second edition (Texere, 2004)