Blink and Compliance


I am a little late to the game when it comes to reading some of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Last week, while on vacation with the family, I managed to read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

The book is about rapid cognition, the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. What is going on inside our heads when during rapid cognition? When are these quick judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?

The book left me with a bunch of little tidbits of information. Gladwell illustrates each of his points with interesting narratives. In the process he makes several insightful points about the nature of rapid human decision-making. Sometimes, over-thinking a problem results in bad decisions. Our first instincts are often correct, if we have a clear picture of what is happening and our perception.

But often that clarity is missing. One example is the difference in selecting elite musicians when the audition is conducted behind a screen, rather than in full view. In the past thirty years since screened auditions have become commonplace, the number of females in the top U.S. orchestras has increased five-fold. Even though the judges were not overtly discriminatory, their first impressions from seeing a woman, the color of her instrument and the way she played had an unconscious negative effect on the judges.

There are lessons in this book for compliance professionals.

Snap judgments are often correct when they come from clarity and experience. But they can also easily be corrupted. Be aware of the situation, the person you are dealing with and the environment around you.

Sometimes too much information can cloud your decision-making. Gladwell finds an example in how an emergency room should handle potential heart attack victims. Typically, doctors try to gather as much information as possible and then make an estimate of whether the chest pain is a heart attack. Instead, they found that three factors were key to determining if chest pain is a heart attack. By focusing on these three factors, the correct diagnosis rate rose from 75%-89% correct rate of diagnosis to 95%.

Experience is clearly the most important factor in developing a strong snap judgment and practice is key in developing that expertise.


2 Responses to Blink and Compliance

  1. David Hobbie September 8, 2009 at 10:09 am #

    I’ve got to comment when you bring up orchestral musicians!

    As mentioned in the squib from Princeton about the study, by the way, the musicians are told not to wear shoes so that the judges couldn’t tell women by the sound of high heels.

    The study attributes about 30% of the increase in women in orchestras to the avoided bias. Some orchestras use the screens only in preliminary rounds (it may well matter for instance if a concertmaster or section leader has a nervous tic or sways around like a banshee!)


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