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Sometimes You Just Know

Posted on March 02, 2005 by Sarah Eaton.

About three years ago, I read an article in “The New Yorker” about microexpressions. They’re these fleeting and nearly imperceptible expressions that cross a person’s face so quickly that the average observer can only see them if you slow down recorded images.

These expressions cannot be consciously controlled, and they betray your true feelings. (The mental image I particularly remember from this article is of normally mild-faced Kato Kaelin snarling at Marcia Clark during the OJ Simpson trial for a split second. You don’t remember seeing that, do you? Me neither.) 

The weird thing is that, after enough practice, you can learn to see those microexpressions. 

The possibilities! If I could see microexpressions, I could have the world trembling at my feet! I could become what amounted to a mindreader.

Since I’m not really a megalomaniac, that feeling subsided, and I hadn’t thought about that article much until recently. 

But now I’ve read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell (also the author of that microexpression story in “The New Yorker,” also the author of “The Tipping Point”) and have spent some time thinking about what can take place in a split second.

Among other things, Gladwell looks at various marketing successes (like the Aeron chair, first saddled with the moniker “The Chair of Death” due to its perceived aesthetic shortcomings, now you’re probably sitting in one (or a knock-off of one) as you read this) and failures (like New Coke) and compares how these decisions were made.

In order to make a good rapid decision, it’s necessary that you know (instinctively) what information to accept and what information to discard when you’re being bombarded by too much of it.

It seems that it goes pretty much like this: if you already know a great deal about the subject at hand, you’re pretty good at making quick judgments about something. 

If you haven’t been trained, had a lot of experience, or practiced, well, then it’s likely that you’re not very good at it.

In other words, if you aren’t looking at exactly the right variables, you might end up making a colossal mistake. And how can you determine what those variables are? Well…by knowing through experience.

Although sometimes you do just know.

There’s a lot going on in your brain that you simply aren’t aware of—you might instinctively act one way without being aware of your reasoning for it until afterwards.

It’s also important to note that there are a lot of variables over which you have little or no control when it comes to making a judgment in a snap. 

Like it or not, each of us has prejudices, and they’re difficult to abandon when you’re in a situation where you’re making a decision very quickly. (For some insight into your own prejudices, here’s a series of tests you can take that Gladwell sites in “Blink.”)

All of these subjects are covered in great detail in the book, both the cheery and the dark sides of rapid cognition. 

Here’s what Gladwell says are the tasks of his book:

  • To convince us that decisions made quickly can be as good as those made deliberately
  • To flag the reasons that our instincts can mislead us
  • To convince us that our snap judgments can be controlled

Does he succeed on all points? Well…yes and no.

When I started this book, I admit that I was seized by the same kind of excitement as I was while reading about microexpressions. (My productivity will increase! No bad decisions again!)

After reading “Blink,” I’m convinced that my snap decisions can sometimes be as good as my most careful ones. And sometimes not. 

I do see why my instincts can mislead me at times.

And, I am convinced that my snap judgments can be controlled. Up to a point.

However, if you’re looking for Gladwell to teach you how to “thin-slice” and make great quick decisions, if you’re looking for him to teach you how to control your snap judgments, you won’t find that in this book.

What Gladwell does do is unload a quick succession of stories and research that loosely interweave to form a book that is chockablock interesting material. 

“Blink” is nothing if it isn’t entertaining, and if you’re intrigued by the complex inner workings of the human mind, it is a book worth reading. 

But if you’re interested in takeaways beyond thought and theory, your time might be better spent researching your decisions instead.

March 2, 2005 in award winning magazine, award winning newsletter, Blog Outsourcing, blog publish, build credibility, Business editorial, Business newsletter, Business relationships, Corporate newsletter, Corporate publications | Permalink


That guy Malcom Gladwell is pretty smart but someone needs to tell him to cut his hair.

Posted by: B | Mar 2, 2005 1:30:14 PM

Personally, I think Gladwell's hair is awfully cool. Also, it's interesting to note that his hair is one of the reasons that he wrote the book--the different way people treated him after he grew his hair out.

Posted by: Sarah Eaton | Mar 2, 2005 1:36:07 PM

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