Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, tells of a marriage counselor who evaluates a couple's chances of success by examining their facial expressions when they are just chatting together. His team does 'thin slices' - fractions of a second - and categorizes what they reveal about the person's feelings at that moment.
The counselor says he can often evaluate a couple’s chances based mostly on four factors: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt, with the most important being contempt. He “has found, in fact that the presence of contempt in a marriage can even predict such things as how many colds a husband and wife gets; in other words, having someone you love express contempt toward you is so stressful that it begins to affect the functioning of your immune system.” (p33)
Interestingly, he says, “For a marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given encounter has to be at least five to one.” (p.26)
Gladwell examines how we make snap judgements, in the blink of an eye, and how those judgements are often, surprisingly, valuable.
Experts can evaluate something in a few seconds, literally less than two – they would just “know”, for example, that a sculpture was a fake. Trained classical musicians can tell whether an auditioning performer is any good almost instantly.
Snap judgements can also mislead. Gladwell cites several incidents of tests showing how prejudices can taint a person’s evaluation. People in stressful situations can sometimes see things (a dangerous person, a gun) that aren't there – but they were expecting to see those things.
And an autistic man watches the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and completely misses the drama in the key scenes because everything looks equally important to him. That is, the faces of the actors don’t mean any more than a light switch, or paintings on the wall, or a brooch. We can all sometime be autistic in this way, Gladwell says.
Gladwell notes that sometimes prejudices jump in and cloud evaluations. That is apparently why most orchestras now do “blind auditions” where great care is taken to make sure nothing of the performer’s non-musical characteristics are revealed – not their sex (no sound of high heels is allowed), their race, nothing. If the performer coughs, they’re sent back to the end of the line since the cough could reveal their gender. Since this was implemented, the makeup of orchestras, (percentage of women, for example, went from 5 to 50).
Gladwell says a partial answer is, “On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated – when we have to juggle many different variables – then our unconscious thought process may be superior.” (p267)
He realizes, he says, “this is exactly contrary to conventional wisdom”. (p267)
It’s a partial answer because it’s just too complicated. Sometimes we need a mix of careful evaluation and feeling in the gut (my term, not Gladwell’s).
And when it’s important we need to be careful of our prejudices, and figure out ways to edit them out – like the blind auditions. He suggests, for example, not having defendants actually in the courtroom, so jurors and judges can escape their tendencies to snap to the wrong judgement.
A fascinating read. Recommended.