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Keynote: Malcolm Gladwell on snap decisions

Filed in: SXSW2005, Sun, Mar 13 2005 13:17 PT

Malcolm Gladwell gave keynote #2. I didn’t know anything about him before this keynote. Which I guess makes me lame, but at least I got to see him talk, so that gets me make-up cool points. Anyway, I now get what the buzz is about.

His book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, is about “rapid cognition.” He tells a story about the Munich Philharmonic, and a woman trombonist named Abby Conan who applied, not knowing that the Philharmonic was anti-… hmm. Anti-not-white-German-male. (I hear there’s a word for that.) They do their audition behind a screen. She blows the maestro away, to the point that he sends away the rest of the trombonists and demands to see his new first chair. On discovering that this first trombonist was a woman, the maestro, after a period of science, was heard to utter: “Mein Gott.”

All kinds of theories exist to explain superiority based on prejudice. But when controls are in place to mask those prejudices, you will often find that those theories and their undermining prejudices are false. When that screen is put between the maestro and the performer, you find that rather than 5% of the winners being women, it turns out to be more like 50%. (Toward the end, he adds that he thinks juries should never see the defendants. If they take out all of the information from which prejudice is drawn, the racial bias found in our present criminal justice system would melt away. More applause.)

He says listeners can tell almost immediately what they like. Sometimes, they can even tell whether they’ll like a performer while they’re practicing. If you split the room in half, and say, you on the left are taking a semester of a class to review the professor, and you on the right are going to watch an hour, and do the same review. What happens? Same results. Even a half-hour, fifteen minutes, five seconds — before the professor even opens his mouth, many have made their decision.

The issue at hand is that we’ve built up mechanisms to defend our snap prejudicial opinions. If you were to challenge the maestro on his gender bias, he would defend himself furiously. How dare you, a classical neophyte, say he’s a sexist? He makes his decisions on his skill, not his prejudices. And he’ll believe that.

Gladwell called a number of companies and asked how tall their CEOs are. In addition to being traditionally very white and very male, they are also very tall: 30% are over 6’2″, compared to 3.8% of the general population. So they’re considered to be leaders from a young age because they’re taller. He doesn’t put much into that assumption. But there may have been a time when being tall was a physical asset you wanted in a leader. Thor, he says, at 6’6″, is a better leader, better with a club, etc., when the rest of his tribe was 4’9″. So, putting these arguments aside, if he were to speak in front of a group of boards of directors and told them they had a selection bias, what would they say? Nonsense! We spent months doing this and that, finding the perfect candidate. “We’re not very good at knowing when our snap decisions have been hijacked.”

Back to the maestro: “We took a bad decision-maker and turned him into a better decision-maker… by taking information away from him.” We often say that more information is better. If someone makes a bad decision, we immediately assume they didn’t have enough info. When it comes to making these quick calls, we get more from less. Doctors don’t actually know a lot of the time whether someone is having a heart attack. It’s a snap judgement. If you limit the info to their EKG, blood pressure, fluid in lungs and whether they’re stable, and take away everything else that seems totally relevant, “the doctor becomes an astonishingly better decision-maker.”

So, we’ve solved the problem for us, but there’s more than just us. Do we wait for all of the entrenched prejudice in the world to die off? “Maybe the answer… is rather to change the context in how the decision is made.” “The (gender) problem in the music world was solved the day they put in screens.” One symphony was hiring four violinists, and hired four women. That was the “my god” moment four times over.

He mentions Amadou Diallo, the man who was shot 41 times by New York police. In the book, he reconstructs the scene from beginning to end. From the time they find him until he’s killed, seven seconds. How do we attack that problem? Target racial profiling? No. Make it easier for the police to make a better snap judgement. Police in groups make worse decisions than they do individually. “Groups of cops, groups of young men in general, do stupid things.” Making individual decisions means they’re less of a risk to themselves and others. Having one cop in the car while the other handles the issue, and communicating to reason out the process, would be far more useful.

Question: how do you decide which information to take away? In the case of the heart attack, it took a computer and some data. But there’s another school that says, it doesn’t matter what you take away, it’s that you take away. If you look back at Pearl Harbor, the American intel community had no clue, but if you looked at what American newspapers were reporting, you’d have a much better idea as to the intentions of the Japanese.

Question: how to take information away from voters? (Left slant fully intact.) Gladwell: “Well, I’m Canadian.” Laughter, applause. He mentions a discussion in which he was talking about the dumbest president, and some thought he was hinting at Bush. “I was thinking about Chester Arthur.” He dodges the question deftly.

Question: How many of the things you advocate are actually adopted? In the case of chest pain, he says that it’s “only a matter of time” before the medical community (or the legal community) figures out that this is something to adopt.

Question: Harvard requires SAT, GPA, letters of recommendation and an essay. Is that too much info? He says “the whole system is so intellectually bankrupt.” In Canada, he got a list of the colleges available, and he marked them by preference, and got a letter back telling him which one he got into. He much prefers that system.

2 responses to “Keynote: Malcolm Gladwell on snap decisions”

  1. […] Malcolm Gladwell gave an interesting afternoon keynote at SXSW today. Many others have already published extensive notes, including Matt May, Liz Lawly, Scott Benish, Tony, and Nancy White. […]

  2. […] Update (3/14/05): My pal and fellow Seattleite, Matt May, has a nice recap of Gladwell’s talk. […]

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