by Ian Cartwright
What do the following have in common?
A “rare” Greek statue, purchased by the Getty Museum’s purchase for nearly $10m, that turned out to be fake.
1. Predicting, from an hour long interview, which couples will and will not stay married.
2. How to prioritize potential heart attack victims
3. A fire fighter retreating from a strange fire that saved his crew from certain death.
4. Warren Harding, arguably one of the worst US Presidents.
The answer: all of these stories feature in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. These and other examples illustrate how a skilled and experienced person was able to identify, literally in a blink, that which eluded (or eludes) others armed with extraordinary amounts of information. Most would recognise this as intuition but would be unlikely to take decisive action based upon it. Blink tells us this could well be to our disadvantage.
Blink puts intuition on a sound scientific footing and provides an extraordinary and illuminating insight into human cognition. In doing so, it forces us to look at the way we use information to make decisions and challenges many of our prejudices. Blink encourages us to think smarter and trust our inner decision making.
Intuition- what is “it”
Many people have it. Basketball players have ‘court sense’, Napoleon had ‘coup d’oeil’ (power of the glance), birdwatchers have ‘giss’ and detectives have ‘hunches’. All of these synonyms are essentially describing skilled intuition. Jack Welch summed it up in the title of his book, Straight from the Gut.
Regretfully, these synonyms cloud with suspicion what is a very real human ability. Blink shows us that with some exceptions we all have this ability and routinely use it without knowing. Unarmed with the knowledge presented in Blink, we are unable to explain our intuition and are reluctant to understand and acknowledge it. It is a human trait to dislike saying that we don’t know. Instead we prefer to look for an elegant solution even if it is inaccurate. It satisfies us as an individual and – perhaps more appealing – it will likely satisfy our would-be cynics. An elegant solution just makes us feel better. Consequently we pay too much attention, and assign too much weight, to grand themes and pay too little attention to the intuition stemming from fleeting moments.
Information – for better or worse
Today we are faced with incredible amounts of information and are unreasonably expected to consider it all. Anything less is likely to be met with disdain and in the extreme could be the basis for allegations of negligence. The real problem today is that we frequently have too much information and that information leads to ‘analysis paralysis’. This expression is anything but trite. Blink demonstrates vividly how too much information slows down the decision making process while regularly yielding no discernible improvement in the quality of the analysis.
Consequences of this are decisions that take too long to make and fewer decisions being made. Neither of these scenarios is desirable yet they are both far too easily accepted. Through powerful examples Blink demonstrates how valid and useful decisions are possible through examination of a cross section of the available information. The crucial skill is to identify what information is the most relevant and pertinent for making the decision.
Blink asks us to acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational (i.e. conventional) analysis, based upon the theory of thin slices. Thin slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience. The psychologist John Gottman used this methodology to predict with 95% accuracy which couples would and would not get divorced based upon a one-hour session.
Blink presents other experiments with similar results that prove, by minutely dissecting interactions and circumstances, that the human mind clearly collects and analyses information that can be interpreted rationally.
An everyday example is our interpretation of body language, particularly facial expression recognition, and Blink indirectly explains why movies such as Toy Story, Shrek and all other modern animations are so ‘real’. The makers of these films, Pixar and Dreamworks, use the extensive research of Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, who catalogued approximately three thousand facial expressions, to create a taxonomy of facial expressions covering the full range of human displays of emotion. Modern animations are so believable because we intuitively recognise and relate to the mimicked expressions. However, when we move away from the human habits and have to make decisions about more abstract constructs, we lose trust in our intuition despite there being no difference in the process.
When we make intuitive decisions we are recollecting prior experiences, reinterpreting and applying them to the current circumstances. Our subconscious is actually very good at thin-slicing and often delivers a better answer than more deliberate and exhaustive ways of thinking.
However, because we do not experience this process consciously, we are unable to rationalise and therefore accept it. The process simply happens too fast. (This is somewhat ironic, given that we rely daily on our computers to do exactly this, i.e. process large quantities of information at seemingly impossible speeds.)
Our brain is at least comparable to our computer yet we are afraid to trust it and are often discouraged from doing so. We are diminishing the value of experience and know-how in favour of codified standards. Blink convincingly concludes that intuition is unfairly castigated and I agree.
Information and decision making – less is more
Notwithstanding the above there are examples where we might unquestionably accept that more information is better – medical care, for example. Given that a life could be at stake and medical malpractice being an omnipresent and expensive risk, one could be forgiven for virtually demanding the need for more information. However, Blink demonstrates that too much information – even in a medical care scenario – can have a negative effect on decision making.
Blink explains that we do not need to pay attention to everything that happens (this should not be surprising, it is essentially the Pareto principle or 80:20 rule); we need to identify the most important information. In the famous Cook County experiment, a county hospital with major resource challenges developed a radical approach to prioritising patients suffering symptoms of heart attack. Brendan Reilly recognised that too much patient information interfered with doctors’ ability to predict heart attacks. To ease the doctors’ burden, he developed an algorithm involving only the most important and immediately relevant information to make the prediction. Its accuracy and success was unprecedented, completely exploding the myth that the quality of decision making is related to the amount of information available.
To emphasize the point Blink cites another famous medical study conducted by Stuart Oskamp. This study showed that with increasing information doctors became more confident in the accuracy of their diagnosis. The fact was there was no change in the accuracy of the diagnosis and their confidence was greatly disproportional to the accuracy. We are being coerced and cajoled onto being information junkies and our addiction is perhaps literally killing us.
We are human
Blink reminds us we are human and the ways humans work. We think in patterns and images and we learn by example and direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.
Verbal overshadowing occurs when we attempt to codify into words that which we know instinctively. As a result our actions or decisions frequently do not comport with our verbalised intents. This is routinely observed when comparing house purchases and selection of partners which frequently vary considerably from what we said we were looking for. Why? Largely because we didn’t truly know what we were looking for until we saw it. Well, our subconscious knew.
Patterns present themselves in distinct ways and we come to recognise them. Equally, we draw great inferences from what is not there – what is ‘missing’. In each case we may be unable to articulate the pattern recognition.
Blink concludes that truly successful decision making relies upon a balance between deliberative and instinctive thinking. The circumstance determines the balance. In a life threating situation instinctive thinking must prevail. With more time, we can spend more time deliberating but must recognise the risk of ‘analysis paralysis’.
Whichever circumstance we face we must learn to be more trusting of our intuition: it is a fundamental human characteristic; it took a lot of experiences to develop and it will often be more accurate than other information which often only creates self-doubt.
Application to construction, dispute resolution and adjudication.
There are countless examples where we could make improvements by embracing some of the suggestions in Blink. Here I reflect on a few applicable from my experiences.
Construction is a dynamic process and requires dynamic decision making yet all too often we suffer analysis paralysis. This is driven by the ever-present fear of making decisions that might have ‘consequences’ and the relentless inquiry into who is responsible and who owes what. Is it important? Of course, but as a barrister once advised when talking about the law, if you follow what is intuitively correct then chances are the law (or the contract) will be on your side. Whilst not the most technically robust statement I believe it was insightfully accurate and prudent counsel.
Parties to construction contract do need to be more dynamic in their decision making. To do so requires mutual trust, and allowing people to exercise reasonable intuition. Intuition is after all the product of experience and a construction project requires an incredible amount of experience.
Dispute resolution is about the substance of and parties to a dispute. It is multi-faceted involving ‘the facts’ of the dispute, storytelling, gamesmanship and strategy. Perceptive intuition is invaluable in dispute resolution. With skill and experience a good practitioner can intuitively assess the strengths and weakness of a dispute, distinguish a credible storyline from a stretch, weigh up the people on ‘the other side’ and as a result, effectively advise on strategy.
The best intuition is that borne from experience managing construction projects and negotiating their disputes. In this regard construction experts play an invaluable role in construction disputes because they appreciate the whole picture. They provide intuition on performance, the contract, costs, programme and the claim.
This intuition is valuable in its own right as well as using it as the basis for developing or defending a claim. Intuition allows a party to hit the ground running.
Adjudication is an excellent example of Blink principles applied to a practical setting. Typically in adjudication the amount of information is comparatively small compared to what would be available at litigation or arbitration. At the same time, many adjudicators may not have the extensive legal experience of a judge or barrister, though many do in my opinion have adequate legal experience or education for their role.
With limited information adjudicators make decisions upon what I believe is a mix of the information they are supplied interpreted in connection with the contract, and their experience or intuition. Of the many disputes adjudicated here in Australia, the UK and elsewhere, only a small percentage are pursued further. So much so that adjudication has been responsible for a significant decline in formal proceedings.
Clearly those involved in construction disputes are satisfied that there is adequate information for an adjudicator to render a fair determination and that opening the matter up again would be fraught with the danger of analysis paralysis.