Decisions made in blink of an eye

When Malcolm Gladwell let his hair grow out a couple of years ago, people began making snap judgments about him.

Those who knew Gladwell as an author and a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine suddenly slotted him into a new category - a quirkier, edgier part of the avant-garde.

Those who didn't know him - the police, for example - took a different view, and he began getting speeding tickets. One day, three officers pounced on him in downtown Manhattan, believing him to be a rape suspect.

And security personnel started to pull him out of airport lineups for questioning.

Brooke Williams photo
Malcolm Gladwell dismisses so-called conventional wisdom in marketing and management.

The new look became the genesis for Gladwell's new book released last week, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It follows on his highly successful 2002 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Blink is about how we jump to conclusions in, well, the blink of an eye. Many of those snap judgments are dead on, powerful and important, the author says.

Born in England, raised in Elmira, Ont., and educated at the University of Toronto, the New York-based Gladwell says his book provides research, stories and case studies that suggest we should be aware of how snap judgments can work for us and against us - and how we can better use this to our advantage.

In an interview with Business Edge, he brought some critical, if not controversial, lessons for business leaders.

Of particular note, Gladwell thinks the business world needs to be wary of three things: Relying on too much information to make decisions; asking people to explain why they made a decision that was instinctive; and believing in market research.

On the first point, Gladwell says we have a "fetish" about information. We gather enormous amounts of data to help make us feel confident about our decisions.

"And that's wrong," he says. "It's a huge issue in the business world. Piling on information, in many cases, does more harm than good."

Typical of Gladwell's thorough writing style, he offers several scenarios to support his position. In Blink, he tells how emergency-room doctors at a Chicago hospital were encouraged to use just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain - such as blood pressure and the electrocardiogram (ECG) - ignoring other factors such as their age and medical history.

The result was the hospital became one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain, he says.

"A doctor will better diagnose a heart attack if he is limited to four critical pieces of information, rather than if he is given everything he wants," he says.

A second business lesson revolves around the idea of having people try to explain a decision they've made instinctively.

Gladwell illustrates this point by referring to a study where a group of students was brought into a room and asked to pick out a poster on a wall that they particularly liked. They were then allowed to take the poster home.

A second group of students was brought in and shown the same posters. But there was a catch - before choosing, the students first had to explain why they picked a particular poster. Then they also took their selection home.

Two interesting things occurred. Researchers found that the second group chose different posters than the first group. And six months later, when the students were contacted to see how they liked the posters, there were two distinct responses.

Students in the second group, the ones who had to explain their choices, all now said they hated the posters. Meanwhile the first group, who gave no explanation, still liked their posters.

"What that says," says Gladwell, "is that the act of asking someone to explain something instinctive not only made them make a different choice, but it also made them make an inferior choice.

"I present a lot of psychological evidence that suggests if you force people to explain decisions that are being made instinctively, not only will they give an explanation that bears no relationship to the truth, but they'll sometimes screw themselves up. They will end up changing their decision."

The root of the problem, Gladwell says, is that instinctive judgments come from our unconscious minds, so when we try to explain what's going on, we are just making up stories that have no kind of bearing in fact.

"That's really critical to understand in the business world where we are surveying people about their decisions," he says.

Understanding that leads to his third point. "Be extremely skeptical of market research," he warns. "It's based on this naive view that you can just waltz in and ask a consumer to explain what they think about your product . . . and that it (the research) will represent a reasonable explanation of the consumer's true beliefs. I don't think that's true."

In Blink, Gladwell tells the story of the Herman Miller Aeron office chair. It failed every market test it was given. Focus groups denounced it. Regardless, the company forged ahead and it became the biggest seller in the history of chairs.

What the company realized, Gladwell explains, is that if you show people something new and different, they will have some sort of response.

People may say they hate the product, he adds, but that's not what they necessarily mean because they cannot access their true feelings.

"What they mean is they've never seen something like that," he says. "They're having a hard time explaining it. You can't take their statement about their snap judgment at face value."

And that's a critical lesson for the business world, Gladwell believes.

"If you are interested in innovation, then by definition . . . you are going to have to have the courage to ignore what your consumers say."

Gladwell notes that the purpose of Blink is to raise awareness about our instant ability to often make the right, or wrong, decision. He also provides strategies and examples of how we can do better.

He notes the classical-music industry made a significant shift for the better when it began placing auditioning musicians behind screens.

"When they took away the visual evidence, all of a sudden they started hiring many more women," he says. "They used to think women weren't getting places in orchestras because they weren't as good."

The same may be true of the selection process of CEOs. Gladwell polled half of Fortune 500 companies and found that virtually all CEOs, on average, were just a shade under six feet tall, yet the average American was five-foot-nine.

In the U.S. about 14.5 per cent of all men are six feet tall or over. But among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 per cent - with 30 per cent six-foot-two or more.

"So many CEOs are tall, and it really raises the question of precisely how fair and objective the hiring process is for CEOs," he ventures.

It's not premeditated prejudice, he says. No one says a potential candidate is "too short," and dismisses them outright. But the facts do raise some interesting questions.

"Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature," he concludes.

And like so many things we do, it happens in the blink of an eye.

Web watch: www.gladwell.com

(Mike Dempster can be reached at miked@businessedge.ca)