Dec 18, 2005

gladwell (part 4)

A book I really enjoyed digesting this fall was Gladwell's Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking.

After two years of research, Malcolm has come up with a thesis about the first couple of seconds that we use when making a decision or an evaluation. His theory is that quick decisions based on first impressions often have more depth to them that we give credit to, especially when it is an area of expertise for us. In short, Gladwell proposes that lengthy analysis is often unnecessary and sometimes less information is better than more (although on. occasion people can make tragically detrimental decisions in this manner).

This process of rapid cognition is called “thin-slicing” and involves the action of homing in on a few silent details – the things that leave us with a strong impression even if we can’t articulate why. This ability is instinctive on the level that we do it naturally to mentally survive, yet it is also a talent we can strengthen through self-analysis. Here's a chart and quick description from another blogger.

Blink Chart
  • A: Slow, Cognitive: Human decision making is mostly understood in terms of this slow, deliberate model of decision making.
  • B: Slow, Emotional: When people think too much about their emotional reactions, they might change their minds. Gladwell cites an experiment asking people to choose painting with & without justification. Second group (that had to justify their emotional reactions) liked their paintings much less 6 months later.
  • C: Rapid, Cognitive: Rapid cognitive reactions often form the basis of expert decision making. For example an expert, who can immediately judge if a painting is a fake or not, is making a rapid, cognitive judgement.
  • D: Rapid, Emotional: This cell is the crux of Gladwells' argument. Rapid, emotional decisions happen far more often than it is realized. People make up their minds to like/dislike something instanthly (for example, whether to trust someone or not) seemlessly synthsizing information from current situation and past experience and learning. Such decisions can be indicative of our true thoughts and feelings, but can also be problematic. For example, stereotyping a race, or group falls into the catgeory of such decisions.

Gladwell shares the story of Abbie Conant, a trombonist who auditioned for the (then) all-male Munich Philharmonic in 1980. A member of the selection committee was related to one of the applicants, so to ensure the appearance of impartiality, a screen was erected to conceal the musicians. The philharmonic’s musical director was floored by one performance, but beside himself to then discover that "Herr Conant was actually Frau Conant." Without the visual cues usually provided by live auditions, the musical director judged only with his ears and selected a woman for the first time in the orchestra’s history. "Auditions are about snap judgments," he said. "I’m arguing that this kind of thinking is not marginal. This kind of thinking is fundamental to the way we live our lives."

Gladwell summarizing thin-slicing this way:

“Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human. We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of hidden fists out there, lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin-slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell is an awful lot.” (p.43-44)
The dark side, though, occurs when our own priming of prejudices, wishful thinking, and personal psychological baggage get in the way of reading the signals correctly. Gladwell also discussed the Amadou Diallo case, where four New York police officers shot 41 bullets into an unarmed young black man. In that situation, the officers’ snap judgments - "a black man standing alone late at night acting suspiciously must be a criminal" - added up to bad decision-making that resulted in death. "For the most part we are bad at recognizing biases that creep into our thinking, and we’re bad about taking steps to remedy those biases."

This can happen in any workplace from any boss, since the evaluation of staffing, senior leadership, and organizational progress is an almost daily part of the job. Often our own history, fears, and filtered perceptions of others can cause us to come to inappropriate conclusions. In contemporary ministry, this is also key insight for Christian leaders, or as Jesus put it...

How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Luke 6:42)

I find it interesting in Scripture that this parallels on a human level the spiritual gift of discernment. Is it possible that those who find this "gift" on a spiritual gift test as a high score are just really good at "thin slicing?" I don't mean to discredit the whole testing process of spiritual gifts, but honestly... can a multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank quiz really tell you the complexities of how God has wired you up?


Maybe not.

Perhaps that's another post. In any event, I bring this up in light of the things that we see in life and the decisions we make based on feelings and impressions. What strikes me is how when the prophet Samuel went to look for the king that would replace Saul (who had lost his way), he figured it would be the oldest and the wisest of Jesse's sons. And yet this "thin-slicing" Samuel did was off base. Check it out:
The LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king."

But Samuel said, "How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me."

The LORD said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate."

Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?"

Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed stands here before the LORD."

But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The LORD has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the LORD chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The LORD has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?"

"There is still the youngest," Jesse answered, "but he is tending the sheep."

Samuel said, "Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives." So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the LORD said, "Rise and anoint him; he is the one."

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:1-13)
Amazing. The man who would become Israel's greatest king was overlooked because of the baggage Samuel had with Saul, and perhaps even his preconception of the Jewish system. Which makes me wonder where in my life I might be "thin-slicing" in the wrong way. Many of you know that I'm interviewing with churches and often I have to make decisions whether or not it's a good fit. This passage kind of scares me into thinking that I just might just by appearance or my own baggage instead of looking for the "David" in the rough.

Maybe the key element (as in Samuel's case) is allowing God to rock our world and intercede within our preconceptions.


Michelle said...

Interesting stuff.

It's also nice to hear someone mention the subjectivity of "spiritual gifts tests."

Isn't it sort of funny that a guy wrote a book on why you shouldn't overanalyze your decision-making process? Seems that people reading it might become hyperaware of theirs and overthink more than ever. Just a thought.

Tony Myles said...


john alan turner said...

Unfortunately, God usually rocks the world of one individual. Rarely (if ever) does he manage to rock the world of an entire search committee.