Tuesday, April 05, 2005

# Posted 2:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE EXPERTS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT: I dare you not to enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink. There isn't a boring page in the whole book. Which is why you will soon finding yourself reciting Gladwellian anecdotes to all of your friends and neighbors.

But the big question every reviewer seems to ask is "So what?" Gladwell presents himself as much more than a storyteller. He presents himself as a humble conduit for the great but unknown truths of modern science. By presenting himself as the messenger instead of the Word, Gladwell deflects attention from himself and from his role in the (mis)interpretation of the stories he has told.

Blink is about the power of cultivated intuition. That adjective is extremely important, and some of those who have reviewed the book seem to have overlooked its significance. Right up front, Gladwell grabs your attention by arguing that
We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. When doctors are faced with a difficult diagnosis, they order more tests, and when we are uncertain about what we hear, we ask for a second opinion. And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don't judge a book by its cover. We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible. (Pages 13-14)
The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be very bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.(Page 14)
The second task of Blink is to ask why intuitive judgments are sometimes so tragically wrong, as in the case of the four New York cops who pumped 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo because they thought his wallet was a gun. In other words, decisions made very quickly can be far, far worse than those made cautiously and deliberately. Which is why:
The third and most important task of this book is to convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled...The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift magically given to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves. (Pages 15-16)
Actually, the evidence in Gladwell's book suggests something slightly different. It suggests that highly-educated experts are capable of making very good snap judgments about questions that concern their particular area of expertise.

For example, the Getty Museum in California conducted extensive research in order to determine whether a $10 million statue it wanted to buy was an ancient Greek original or a later-vintage imitation. Yet before committing to buy, the Museum asked a number of experts to take a look at the statue. Almost all of them instantly declared that it was a fake, even though they couldn't explain why they felt that way...at first. Ultimately, they were able to provide evidence to back up their point.

In contrast, average human beings often make bad snap judgments when high-pressure, high-adrenaline situations cloud their judgment. When you throw racism and other cognitive biases into the mix, the results can be explosive, a la Amadou Diallo.

Which makes you wonder, shouldn't the title of this book be Blink (Sometimes)? As David Brooks pointed out in his review of the book,
Though Gladwell describes several ways intuition can lead people astray, he doesn't really dwell on how often that happens. But I've learned from other books, notably David G. Myers's more methodical but less entertaining ''Intuition,'' that there is a great body of data suggesting that formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver disease than the intuition even of experts.
Brooks is definitely right about Gladwell ignoring a lot of evidence that points to the shortcomings of intuition. But I think Gladwell does have a partial, albeit implicit answer to the question of how often snap judgments are well-made. The answer is "When experts make them."

I can only think of one example in Blink of how expers' intuition can lead them completely astray. As Gladwell relates, female musicians used to have an extremely hard time getting chosen to play for prestigious orchestras. That is, until concerns about sexism led to the innovative idea that during auditions, there should be a screen between the performer and the judges that prevents the latter from knowing whether the former is a man or a woman.

Before the screens went up, the judges always provided aesthetic justifications for their decision to reject female candidates. They insisted that the performances of female candidates were objectively inferior. And they probably believed it. But they were wrong.

In addition to sexism, Gladwell identifies racism as one of the cognitive biases most often responsible for making bad snap judgments. He also identifies physical attractiveness and height as factors that can lead us astray. What these four things have in common is that all of them are basically visual attributes. Moreover, they are all preferences which everyone now condemns as superficial (e.g. looks and height) or morally reprehensible (e.g. racism and sexism).

In other words, Gladwell seems to be telling us that it is easy to make good snap judgments if we are good human beings who don't give in to prejudices that we already know are bad. While no one would recommend giving in to prejudices that we already know are bad, Gladwell seems unable to recognize just how many other sorts of prejudices there are that may lead us astray.

The book I read immediately before Blink was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is a story about how statistical analysis is so much better than intuition that the Oakland A's were able to win 90+ ballgames four years in a row even though they spent only a fraction of what their rivals did on recruiting talented players.

(Coincidentally, David Brooks also talks about Moneyball in his review of Blink. Spooky, no?)

Part of the story about the Oakland A's is that their general manager, Billy Beane relied on an unusual set of statistics to decide whether or not a player was talented. Far more importantly, Beane discovered that other managers didn't notice which players had talent because, over course of decades, baseball had developed a culture that considered certain players to be defective even though they were good at getting on base and winning ballgames.

In short, baseball culture is full of prejudices. According to Lewis, major league scouts are always looking for young players who seem athletic. To some degree, these scouts bought into the myth of good looks that Gladwell describes. Yet they also focused on seemingly objective indicators of talent, such as how fast a player could run around a baseball diamond.

Speed isn't bad thing, but Beane discovered via statistical analysis that the added value of having a fast runner on your team isn't very high at all. However, there is nothing superficial or immoral about having a preference for speed, especially if you are a baseball coach. Thus, a preference for speed is precisely the sort of cognitive bias that Gladwell can't warn us about.

What my intuition tells me is that is almost every field of expertise has the same sort of prejudices as those of major league baseball. Especially politics.

To be continued...
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