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The Moment of Truth?

One problem with the field guide approach to decision-making is that it provides too much information, allows for too many options. Call it “unbounded rationality.” Call it “thick-slicing.” What enables thin-slicing to work, by contrast, is not simply that it deals with a smaller universe, but that it homes in on the bits that are uniquely relevant to the problem at hand. Gladwell tells the story of Brendan Reilly, an emergency room physician at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, an overcrowded and financially strapped institution whose emergency department was treating a quarter of a million patients a year, many of them complaining of chest pain. Typically, a doctor diagnoses heart attack by taking a patient’s history, administering a physical exam including an electrocardiogram (EKG), and making an educated guess. It’s time-consuming, and too often, in Reilly’s hospital at least, that guess has turned out to be wrong. Hoping to find a more accurate and less costly method of finding out who was not experiencing cardiac arrest, so his staff could focus on those who might be, Reilly began to test a decision-making algorithm developed by the cardiologist Lee Goldman. Though the algorithm only took three factors into account in addition to an ECG—is the pain unstable, is there fluid in the lungs, is the blood pressure below 100?—it was based on Goldman’s historical analysis of the course of hundreds of heart attacks:

[Reilly] took Goldman’s algorithm, presented it to the doctors in the Cook County ED and the doctors in the Department of Medicine, and announced that he was holding a bake-off. First, the staff would use their own judgment in evaluating chest pain, the way they always had. Then they would use Goldman’s algorithm, and the diagnosis and outcome of every patient treated under the two systems would be compared. For two years, data were collected and in the end, the result wasn’t even close. Goldman’s rule won hands down in two directions: it was a whopping 70 percent better than the old method at recognizing the patients who weren’t actually having a heart attack.

The Cook County Hospital experiment brings Gladwell to the conclusion that “you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.” True as this may be, it is also deceptive. Goldman’s simple algorithm is based on a complicated methodology. And much like, say, Thomas Hoving’s expertise, it was decades in the making. That complexity and those years of refinement, both of which occur offstage, are what “snap” the judgment. Moreover, by screening out what does not matter—a patient’s diabetes, for instance, or his insomnia, or his Percocet habit—Goldman’s algorithm disallows subjective and idiosyncratic concerns from skewing the diagnosis. In the language of cognitive psychologists, the algorithm is a heuristic, the irrelevant concerns are biases, and biases muck things up.


Gladwell also spends a lot of time in Blink writing about the muck-ups, telling the sorry stories of ordinary people who were hamstrung by embedded prejudices that clouded their better judgment, military personnel who were wedded to inelastic chains of command that left no room for intuitive decision-making, market researchers who asked the wrong questions and therefore promoted the wrong products, and voters who chose style over substance. This last is what Gladwell calls the Warren Harding error, and it is, he says, the “dark side of rapid cognition.”

Harding, who until quite recently had the honor of being considered the worst president in American history, was launched on his political career by an Ohio political operative named Harry Daugherty who happened to be sitting next to Harding one day when they were both having their shoes shined. To Daugherty’s quick, intuitive eye, Warren Harding looked presidential. He had the right bearing, the right stature, the right forehead. Other people—the voters of Ohio—thought so too. They sent Warren Harding—a man who stood for nothing—to the Senate in 1914. (“Why that son of a bitch looks like a senator,” one of his supporters declared at a campaign banquet.)

In 1920, after Harding had served one term, Daugherty convinced him to seek the Republican nomination for president. (Apparently, as his hair grayed, he looked even more the part.) When delegates found themselves deadlocked over the top two candidates, Harding catapulted over them both:

In the early morning hours, as they gathered in the smoke-filled back rooms of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, the Republican Party bosses threw up their hands and asked, wasn’t there a candidate they could all agree on? And one name came immediately to mind: Harding! Didn’t he look just like a presidential candidate? So Senator Harding became candidate Harding, and later that fall, after a campaign conducted from his front porch in Marion, Ohio, candidate Harding became President Harding.

And that was before television.

The election of Warren Harding might have been, in Gladwell’s terms, an error, but it’s unclear that it was an aberration. Indeed, the “dark side” of Blink not only seems to permeate our political life, it seems to eclipse it. In politics, more than in almost anything else, people go on first impressions. As Democrats found in the last election cycle, when almost every piece of news coming out of Iraq and the budget office and the foreign exchange should have helped their cause, none of it mattered because more people “liked” Bush than “liked” Kerry. It was the power of thinking without thinking.

Writing in The New Yorker the summer before the 2004 election about how Americans typically go about picking their presidents, Louis Menand recounts the advice offered to campaign strategists in the pages of Campaigns & Elections: The Magazine for People in Politics:

In a competitive political climate informed citizens may vote for a candidate based on issues. However, uninformed or undecided voters will often choose the candidate whose name and packaging are most memorable. To make sure your candidate has that “top-of-mind” voter awareness, a powerful logo is the best place to start. You want to present your candidate in language that voters will understand. They understand colors. “Blue is a positive color for men, signaling authority and control,” another article advises. “But it’s a negative color for women, who perceive it as distant, cold and aloof. Red is a warm, sentimental color for women—and a sign of danger or anger to men. If you use the wrong colors to the wrong audience, you’re sending a mixed message.

As reductive as this may seem, these kinds of messages—whether in the form of logos or slogans or colors or songs—are effective. They are effective because they are reductive. There is only so much information a person can or is willing to absorb. Political strategists exploit this, certainly, but most of us are complicit. How many voters who said they agreed with John Kerry’s health care program, for instance, could state with any specificity what his health care program entailed? As the political scientist Samuel Popkin suggests to Louis Menand, even “elite” voters—that is to say, informed voters—rely on shortcuts:

The very essence of being an ideologue lies in trusting the label—liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. Those are “bun-dling” terms: they pull together a dozen positions on individual issues under a single handy rubric. They do the work of assessment for you.

We live our lives on a need-to-know basis.

Of course, so do animals in the wild, who must instantly assess if the approaching footsteps belong to a potential predator, if the plant is edible, if that female is fertile. The environment supplies the cues, and at the moment of decision, everything else is just background noise. When, on February 4, 1999, four New York City policemen shot and killed a Guinean man named Amadou Diallo in his Bronx apartment building, they were, it would seem, reacting instinctively to cues that made them behave as if Diallo were a predator: his presence as a black man on his building’s stoop late at night; his flight when approached; the way his black leather wallet, held out to the officers in a darkened hallway, looked to them like a gun. Their reaction—forty-one shots fired in less than two minutes—would seem to be the very darkest side of “blink.”

Gladwell, however, doesn’t exactly see it this way. To him the killing of Amadou Diallo was a spectacular “mind-reading failure.” The officers, observing Diallo on the stoop,

sized him up and in that instant decided he looked suspicious. That was mistake number one. Then they backed the car up, and Diallo didn’t move. [Officer] Carroll later said that “amazed” him: How brazen was this man, who didn’t run at the sight of the police? Diallo wasn’t brazen. He was curious. That was mistake number two. Then Carroll and [officer] Murphy stepped toward Diallo on the stoop and watched him turn slightly to the side, and make a movement for his pocket. In that split second, they decided he was dangerous. But he was not. He was terrified. That was mistake number three.

What Gladwell seems to mean by “mind-reading,” then, is the ability to interpret another person’s state of mind from his body language—which in fact is what the police officers thought they were doing when they started firing their weapons. But their ability was clouded by instinct—fear. True mind-reading, Gladwell suggests, requires instinct to be suppressed, or retrained. He cites examples of security guards who are made to undergo “stress inoculation” by being exposed to ferocious dogs and shot at (with loud fake guns) over and over again until their racing hearts slow down and their fears slink away because the situations and the interventions required become routine. “Our unconscious thinking is, in one critical respect, no different from our conscious thinking,” Gladwell writes: “in both we are able to develop our rapid decision making with training and experience.” Elkhonon Goldberg would call this the getting of wisdom.

Early on in his book, Gladwell relates the story of a place he calls “the love lab,” a nondescript office near the University of Washington where John Gottman and his team of researchers videotape and then analyze the conversations of married couples. So far they’ve deconstructed about three thousand marital dialogues, each one a seemingly inconsequential tête-à-tête about the family dog or where to go on vacation or whether to buy a pickup truck or a minivan. Using a system Gottman developed that assigns a num-erical value to each one of twenty different facial gestures every time one is expressed, Gottman’s team translates each discussion into a string of 1,800 numbers—900 per spouse. These number strings are put into an equation that also factors in the talkers’ temperature, heart rate, the degree of nervous fidgeting, and other physical phenomena. (They are hooked up to electrodes.) The result, Gladwell says, is “something remarkable. If [Gottman] analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later.” While Gladwell (who is unmarried) acknowledges that Gottman’s work is hardly an example of rapid cognition, he argues that, nonetheless, it shows how

the truth of even impossibly complex interactions like marriage can be understood very rapidly and with limited information…. Can a marriage really be understood in one sitting? Yes it can….

Someday, perhaps, there will be a prenuptial algorithm available for aspiring spouses to assess their future happiness, but in the meantime, as Gladwell reports, there is speed dating, where unclaimed singles scurry around a room sizing up potential mates in a couple of minutes. Gigerenzer’s work shows that most people need not spend a lot of time, or encounter a tremendous number of new prospects, to find a suitable partner. Bounded rationality is in effect. Hooking up, however, is not the same thing as staying hitched. There is a biological imperative to reproduce. It’s instinctive. We hardly have to think about it.

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