The virtue of snap judgments

AUSTIN, Texas, March 13 – Malcolm Gladwell steps on stage, his gently receding hairline overshadowed by the large Afro hovering above it. Sleek, stylish jeans and a track jacket hug his small frame, and his comically oversized fingers begin twitching while a volunteer attaches a microphone to the collar of his jacket.

The South by Southwest Interactive Festival audience murmurs gently throughout this process, unimpressed by the man onstage. However, a few minutes later, after a dry introduction, they fade into silence and rapt attention. Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is one of the best public speakers touring today. He has been on the road for the past few months promoting his latest book, “Blink,” published Jan. 11 by Little, Brown and Company.

The best-selling author of 2002’s “The Tipping Point” has an amazing ability to break complex ideas into bite-sized chunks not only in his writing, but also in his public speaking. “The Tipping Point” dealt with the dissemination of ideas and what it takes for an idea to reach the masses; “Blink” tackles the issues of first impressions and rapid cognition. As he explains to the audience, “snap judgments don’t linger around the edges of our judgments.” They are the very center of the way we make sense of the world, are extraordinarily complex, and prove our unconscious is “a powerful force. But it’s fallible.”

As Gladwell writes in the introduction of the book, “the first task of ‘Blink’ is to convince you of a very simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” There is a powerful cultural presumption that more information leads to a better decision, but a critical mass of information exists in snap judgments, he said, and many of those judgments are as legitimate as those we spend months agonizing over. We make snap judgments in the first few seconds of meeting someone, or of seeing something for the first time.

This concept of “thin-slicing” – taking small slices of information and extrapolating entire judgments – points to the importance of first impressions and how those first few moments inform our relationships with everyone we encounter. No one likes to think of him or herself as judgmental, but the truth of the matter is that we all make instantaneous decisions regarding every situation. In “Blink,” Gladwell explores whether or not those decisions are correct.

After discussing how we make these decisions, Gladwell cautions that the unconscious is a fragile mechanism, and may be easily hijacked. He calls these incorrect judgments, this dark side of rapid cognition, the “Warren Harding error.” Warren Harding was our entirely mediocre twenty-ninth president, but he was tall, dark and handsome, radiating common sense and dignity and all that was presidential. Sadly, as Gladwell comments, “as he rose from one political office to another, he never once distinguished himself.” Harding never should have made it as far as the office of the president of the United States, but he looked the part. Based entirely on his looks, people voted him into office in 1920, cementing his place in history as the worst American president.

The Warren Harding error “is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination,” Gladwell explains in the book. Snap judgments have enormous racial implications.

Take, for example, the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed, innocent black man in South Bronx, N.Y., who was shot 41 times by four police officers. He was standing outside of his apartment building just before midnight on Feburary 3, 1999, when the police stopped to ask what he was doing loitering outside so late at night. Diallo hesitated, then moved to go inside his building while at the same time plunging his hand into his pocket for his wallet to show the police some identification. The policemen thought he was digging for a weapon and in seven seconds, shot him dead.

While this may be an extreme example, it demonstrates the power of snap judgments, as well as the consequences of incorrect judgments. As Gladwell writes, “our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment” and that “thin-slicing has to be done in context.”

Gladwell encourages his audiences to make better snap judgments. “Feel free, feel emboldened to take a step back” when making decisions, he said. There is a cultural pressure to move quickly, but he wanted everyone to leave the room second-guessing all judgments. While there may be a wealth of information in snap judgments, it may not always be correct. Before you decide you know someone or completely understand a situation, think about where your information is coming from and how you received it. It just might change your life.

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