Malcolm Gladwell

I went to see Malcolm Gladwell give a talk last night, on his book tour in support of Blink. (Hosted by the Regulator, held at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy.) I found out about this about 2 hours before the event so I almost didn’t go, but I’m glad I did.

First of all, he’s a very entertaining speaker. He speaks like he writes, in a way: lots of stories, lots of personal examples, very accessible. Which I suppose is what makes him such a good writer of popular science. And I love good popular science; I grew up reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould (when I wasn’t reading science fiction). Second, his hair is a life-form independent of its host.

Evelyn made the comment afterwards that most of the reviews she’d read of Blink emphasized how good snap-judgment thinking is, that sometimes you don’t need considered, rational thought. And Gladwell did essentially make that point, that there are some things that just are by necessity snap judgments. The example he used was musical auditions for symphonies: the maestro just knows, in like the first 5 notes. But Gladwell also talked a lot about how snap judgments can get you into a lot of trouble when they’re bad, and it seemed to me that he was saying that snap judgments on balance are bad – or rather, not that they’re necessarily bad, but that people just generally make bad snap judgments. As I understand it, there are 2 factors that affect snap judgments: (1) the context in which the decision is made, and (2) the experience & expertise that the person making the decision has.

Experience & expertise are the result of long exposure to a thing – a quarterback who can decide on a play in a second or two – and Gladwell made the point that we should really acknowledge, encourage, & celebrate that kind of depth of experience, since the result can be making good snap judgments instinctively.

The context in which the decision is made was more interesting to me. He suggested that often what is needed is not more information in these situations but less. His example was the symphony audition: women never got hired until symphonies started putting up screens in front of the player, so the irrelevant data of the sex of the player was taken away. In other words, when a snap judgement is necessary or inevitable, put on the table only that data that is absolutely necessary to making a good decision. This made me wonder how we can do our hiring better for faculty positions. What data is absolutely necessary to making a good decision about hiring a faculty member? This seems to me to be the sort of thing that really requires rational, considered thought. But the problem is, Gladwell says, first impressions are real: people tend to decide what they think about a person within about 5 seconds. So how can we filter out all unnecessary data about faculty candidates so as to enable really considered, rational hiring?

This seems to me to have important implications for information science. Gladwell said that usually we think that where information is concerned, more is better. Yes, for rational decision-making, but no for snap judgments. So what does this do to the idea of information seeking, or interfaces for presenting information? If there are any PhD students out there reading this, please study this.

Of course, maybe I’m just repeating what’s in the book here, I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. But you bet I will soon.