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April 19, 2005


My son escaped, but he’s smarter than I am. When my wife announced that Saturday’s agenda was a trip to “the big mall” near Seattle to shop for clothes for her and Katie, I went along as the driver. Jake got himself invited for a day with the grandparents.

Our family Law of Shopping states that dad must be out of the way during the selection phase but close enough to approve and pay for the selections once they have been made. That means I don’t have to wander the racks but I’m not allowed to camp out in the food court. So I’m that guy leaning against the wall outside each store in succession.

Fortunately, I had grabbed Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on the way out the door. I read it all in one day, standing the whole time. (Except in Nordstrom’s, where they have the good sense to put chairs throughout the women’s and girls’ sections.) That I didn’t really mind, and that I stayed long enough to finish, tells you what an interesting and easy read Blink is.

The subtitle is “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” but what Gladwell is describing is thinking – it is just the very fast thinking we do when we encounter something new. The book is full of interesting stories and anecdotes about making snap judgments, good and bad. He makes the case that experts in a subject make better snap judgments than amateurs and explores why that’s so. This doesn’t strike me as particularly profound, and it is not something you can specifically put to use (except by trusting your judgment if you are an expert), but the strength of the book is in the details and storytelling that keep you from minding.

I found the description of the triangle test fascinating. Gladwell explains that while many people can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind taste test, the number who can identify the different one when three glasses (2 Coke, 1 Pepsi, or the reverse) are presented randomly is no more than would choose correctly by chance. The reason is that those of us who aren’t professional tasters lack a vocabulary for describing the difference between the two beverages. Without that vocabulary and scale in our head we can’t store and compare our impressions of the first two tastes against the third. Head-to-head we can call glass A sweeter than glass B, but when we get to glass C we can’t match it to A or B because we couldn’t record those tastes in a retrievable way in our minds.

This made me think about the difficulty I have in comparing things in which I am not an expert, and how I do store in my mind the things I do want to compare. Silly example: Every Thai restaurant has a different definition of four stars of heat. When I try to compare how hot four stars at this restaurant is to four stars at another, I have no way to do it without using some external scale. When I remember that four stars at restaurant A made me sweat and four at restaurant B caused me to wince, but four stars here at restaurant C isn’t even burning my lips, I am using a measure I can store in my head or on paper (an index on a continuum of symptoms) instead of trying to store an indistinct hotness value. And now that I understand this better, I can formalize my scales and always know how many stars to order.

The “lesson” of Blink is predictable: snap judgments can be spectacularly wrong and acting on them can be bad for you and others. Again, it is the detailed and specific examples that carry the book, illustrating how groups as diverse as police forces and symphony orchestras identified weaknesses in their decision making and put in place procedures to improve it.

Posted by Bob Pritchett at April 19, 2005 3:57 PM

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