Blink -- embrace the subconscious

Jan 31, 2006

I liked „Blink”. It illustrates the fact that although the whole drive of Western civilization has been towards rational, organized knowledge, there are aspects of your thinking that do not easily subject themselves to logic and conscious analysis, yet they are immensely useful in everyday life and business, and with careful approach, you can still analyse and train them.

I like the style of writing that tells you actual stories and experiences of people, and talks through them, instead of pure theorizing. It’s easy to build arbitrary theories about anything, but they have to stand the test of practice to be taken seriously for any daily practical use. „Pure” theories are certainly useful for base sciences, but that’s not my ballpark. I’m interested more in life and people. And „Blink” gave me plenty of both.

I’ve always believed in first impressions and thin-slicing. As the book shows, you’re mostly right with these, especially as you polish your thin-slicing ability over time and practice. However, as shown with the Warren Harding story and the racial priming test, people tend to be victims of prejudice more often than we’d like to think. „Blink” suggests that current CEO-s are mostly tall white men – looking back, it’s actually true for my current as well as previous positions. (Then again, Meg is neither horribly tall nor a man, so go figure.)

The „which doctors get sued” story was interesting. As it turns out, medical malpractice lawsuits have usually very little to do with the actual quality of care – it’s more often about how your physician treats you at the hospital, how you are explained all the procedures and tests and all that. Good communication obviously cannot fix a bad service, but bad communication can do a lot of damage to a good service. So if you’re doing any kind of customer-facing products or services, customer care and information matter. I’ve found myself that when in an awkward new situation, such as any medical procedure at a clinic (which I fortunately haven’t had to do too many, but that’s what makes it even more awkward, as it is an extremely unusual situation for me), it is extremely important to me that I’m walked and talked through the procedures in advance and always know what’s next. Coincidentally, Nick Usborne’s „Net Words” says pretty much the same about the sale procedure – every time a customer has to ask and wonder „what do I do now?”, you have failed.

It’s sometimes difficult to explain your decisions, as demonstrated through the stories of sports experts in various fields, speed dating retrospect questionnaires and food-tasting. You CAN explain taste differences for food if you’re an expert in that particular field and have specially trained for it, but the laymen, like most of us, usually come up with nonsense. A classic example is that if you recently saw someone, say a waiter at your latest cafe, picking that person from a police lineup is easy, since you can tell faces from one another. However, if you had to verbally describe the facial features of the person, it wouldn’t be so easy at all. (I wonder how robot portraits work then? The ones where police reconstructs a face by witness accounts. Or do they at all?) This may be true in business decisions as well – sometimes you just know what’s the right thing to do, but if you have to explain it to a panel, you may come up with arbitrary nonsense. Alas, beyond a certain size, organizations cannot function on gut feeling only, so some structure into the decisions is inevitable.

Occasional failure of rational analysis was also demonstrated by the stories about Kenna, the New Coke and Aeron chair. It turns out that market research is sometimes too blunt of a tool to distinguish between simply bad stuff, and stuff that’s too innovative or different and takes time to get used to. This echoes with a story about Jonathan Ive and Apple’s product design, where he concluded, „focus-group testing is a surrogate for making a decision”. If you know what’s right, sometimes you just have to go with it.

The story I liked most was about Paul van Riper, the Millennium Challenge and the two opposing military philosophies. Van Riper was a man with experience from Vietnam, the „oldschool” soldier, who believed in a „messy” way of making decisions and whose staff found soulmates in stock exchange trading room brokers – the military trade with lives and brokers trade with money, but both have to „make decisive rapid-fire decisions under conditions of high pressure with limited information”. The opposing team, the US „good guys” Blue Team, represented the latest in US military doctrine and had at their disposal the latest real-time see-all, hear-all communications and decision-making methods and systems. They thought they knew everything about van Riper’s Red Team – their assets and options. Yet van Riper surprised them and won the battle. The Blue Team knocked out his microwave and satellite communication towers and thought the Red Team was grounded now, but van Riper resorted to old technologies from WW2 – lighting systems for airplanes, motorcycle couriers for messaging, since he said no sane person would use mobiles and satellites anyway, after what happened in Afghanistan. But since I guess such an expenditure had been made on the high-tech stuff that they really could not afford to lose, they totally changed all the rules and told the Red Team they just can’t do half of the things. And the Blue Team still „won” and the new military tools and doctrine were proven „successful”. (And it was „mission accomplished” in Iraq 1 year ago. Oh wait, or was it 2?) An interview with van Riper.

A similar story -- someone I know in Hungary has documented his career as an army conscript, and had an interesting encounter with an officer who had seen both NATO and Soviet style of training. When they were in the German mountains with NATO troops and the GPS broke, they called a special unit to fly in over many hours to fix it, and they sat on top of the mountain, instead of messing around a bit with a screwdriver and soldering iron. Whereas the Soviets actually took their units into Siberia into friggin -50C cold and had them shoot guns there. So the officer's comment was that NATO wouldn't have had any chance, had the war actually broken out. I guess that's not so true any more since the Russian army has declined a lot, but still food for thought. (UPDATE: here's the beginning of the story -- keep adding to articleID-s to read them all. Darn... cannot find the NATO vs Soviet episode though. I swear it was there.) See also high- vs low-tech story by Thomas Crampton on Joi Ito's blog.

On to face reading, a fascinating topic. Turns out that your face is actually telling all your emotions in a pretty straightforward and predictable manner. Facial expressions can be broken down to „expression units” and are then combined to produce and express emotions. And expressions are not only reflected on your face, they can actually start there. So all this saying about if you’re down, then just keep smiling, and soon you’ll go up, might have some justification afterall. I find faces fascinating and I believe you can judge people „by the face”, although I don’t have a theory about what features tell you what – when you look at someone, it just comes to you, and I don’t even attempt to put any structure into that.

It all ends on a positive note. Turns out that in classical music auditions, women were not getting orchestra positions because the panels had prejudice about their abilities, no matter how well they actually played – just the fact that someone was a woman clouded their judgement. The good news is, they eventually realized that and now orchestra auditions happen so that you only hear someone playing, but you can’t see who he or she is. And kaboom, great woman musicians are showing up in orchestras, and everyone wins.