A wonderful elementary school friend who I haven’t seen for over 40 years recently drew my attention to a Canadian journalist and author named Malcolm Gladwell. I first read his book “Outliers,” a book that examined how the very most successful people in a variety of fields (from computer gurus like Bill Gates, to star hockey players, to airline pilots) managed to climb to the top of their respective disciplines. The overwhelming premise, backed by a slew of fascinating facts and anecdotes, is that skill, intelligence and drive are simply not enough on their own; without being in the right place at the right time (fate, luck, coincidence or whatever), no one would reach the top.
I have since moved on to my second Gladwell book, “Blink.” No less entertaining and original than “Outliers,” “Blink” deals with the notion that people have a relatively unrecognized and poorly understood mechanism for making ‘snap’ judgments, a mechanism that Gladwell claims is often as effective (or even more effective) than ‘traditional’ rational decisions.
I found this argument to be particularly interesting, and although I often pride myself on carefully articulated and cautious judgment, I also know that many of my most important and (accurate) decisions are made very quickly. This is true not only in my personal life, where many times I find that an initial negative impression upon meeting someone is almost inevitably borne out upon closer acquaintance, but also in my professional capacities. The success of a science lab rides on the quality of the personnel—students, postdocs, and technicians. And I feel that I have been fortunate in typically selecting the best of the best, something that has been great for our research.
Gladwell likes to use the phrase “thin slicing” for this type of quick judgment, and gives numerous examples of how people who are good at thin slicing can make immediate and accurate judgments, often without understanding how they are doing so. His examples include identifying forgeries, being able to rapidly assess whether a married couple will remain together, evaluating whether a tennis player will double-fault as he/she prepares to serve, and assessing the teaching of professors after watching them only for several seconds.
One spectacularly successful bit of my own thin slicing, if I do say so myself, was done just a couple years ago during the Republican primaries for the 2016 US elections. Not watching any television, aside from the news and an occasional Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) show, I had never heard the name of one Donald Trump before the primaries. This bit of thin slicing, unconsciously and rapidly evaluating him as a person, must have occurred not in seconds but milliseconds (nanoseconds?)—and my intuitive feelings so strongly indicated that this is a morally compromised and revolting individual, that I am continually in awe of my thin slice judgment with each passing day and each new terrible discovery of the mendacious and narcissistic personality who holds the office of the presidency. If only thin slicing could provide hope and indicate when this awful person will finally disappear from public life for the good of the country.