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Mar 2006

Think "Blink"

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Shaping the future of learning

Want to be an efficient learner?

Think Blink.

From Malcolm Gladwell, the “intellectual adventurer” (must look good on a business card) who got the world all in a tizzy looking for The Tipping Point, we now have Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Turns out it's all about efficient learning. How convenient!

What's Blink?

What’s blink? It’s best explained by examples. How come an expert on forgeries can look at a statue, and in three seconds know it’s a fake, when others have spend months verifying its authenticity? How can some experts listen to a few minutes of a married couple discussing a subject, and predict with 95% accuracy whether they will still be together in ten years? A firefighter instinctively knows it’s time to get out of a burning building but “can’t explain why” – well, what is the ‘why’?

Blink is why. This book is about learning, or what he calls “rapid cognition” – the learning that we do in the first few seconds of appraising a situation - the blink of an eye. The premise of the book is that “thin slicing” – taking very small but very dense pieces of data – is all we need to make good decisions. When making important decisions, be it whether someone is at risk of a heart attack, about to pull out a weapon, or be a suitable life partner (hopefully not all the same person), more often than not our judgements don’t improve when we are given more and more information. In fact, in a lot of cases, our decisions become worse. This runs counter to common sense. We would usually say, if faced with an important decision, give me all the available information; I will review it thoroughly, weigh it all up, take all the factors into account, and make an informed decision. Blink says that’s not necessary or efficient. Worse, it’s counter productive. We already know the answer.


Heart Attack? Let me get my laminate...

The book consists of a series of good stories that provide this point. Consider the case of Cook County Hospital in Chicago (the one that the TV show ER is based on). ER doctors used to spend a lot of time deciding if patients are in immediate danger of having a heart attack. Mistakes are costly. If a doctor decides a patient is at risk, admits them for a minimum three-day stay, and it turns out they’re fine, that costs thousands of dollars. Tell someone they’re fine when they’re not and you’re in even worse trouble. No wonder, then, doctors used to ask lots and lots of questions. Too many questions, it turns out.

Enter the new ER boss (a blink advocate before he knew what that meant). He had a theory that there are really only four vital pieces of information you need to have to determine if someone is in short-term risk of a heart attack: ECG reading, blood pressure, fluid in the lungs, evidence of unstable angina. You can ask a hundred more questions but it won’t make your diagnosis any better. However, doctors were gathering this information and then a whole lot more (e.g. do you smoke, how old are you, what’s your job, diet, exercise routine etc.). They were using the information to reassure themselves they’d been thorough and not missed something, even though they instinctively knew the answer. But it wasn’t helping them to make better decisions. Amazingly, the more information gathered, the worse their prediction rate became. It turns out this extra layer of information serves as a distraction and clouds your instinctive judgement. You start to doubt yourself.

The new boss conducted an experiment. Half the staff continued to assess people in the traditional thorough manner. The other half followed a simple algorithm that focused only on the four core questions and no other information. The results? The algorithm was an amazing 70 percent better at predicting heart attack risk – and in a fraction of the time. Blink is better. If you go to the ER in Chicago, you’ll see that simple decision tree hanging on the wall.

That’s blink in a, well, blink. It’s full of great examples of how we can make better decisions by thin-slicing, trusting the process and ourselves. It’s closely related to the pareto (80/20) principle and the whole idea of getting more for less – something you can read more about in our efficiency insight report.

Blink isn’t always the answer and it is not synonymous with snap judgements or being lazy. Gladwell is careful to point out that highly developed expertise is what helps to make sure thin slicing works. It’s also careful to caution against the mistakes we can make if we’re not doing it properly (a particularly poignant chapter on an accidental shooting in the Bronx makes this vivid).

The book is really structured as a series of examples with a layer of psychology running through the middle. It’s a quick and easy read with great stories that will make you rethink how we think and learn.


What’s in it for Learning?

If you care about efficiency in learning, you need to think blink.

In performance and training needs analysis – are we asking too many questions? Are we scoping too much information and losing sight of what we instinctively know to be the issue? We may not be able to boil it down to a decision tree like the ER, but could we be making better decisions by not asking for every piece of data the business could provide?

In design - are we allowing learners to blink? Or are we providing them with all of the information, just in case, and losing sight of the essence. What are the first three seconds like in your learning experiences? If that’s all I had, what would I get from them? The essence of what we’re trying to communicate? It should be.

In user involvement - what does this say about focus groups, user testing, creating personas? Ask yourself – is it really making a difference to the quality of the course? We in the learning profession put a lot of stock into user-centred design, focus grouping. It certainly makes development take longer, and it seems thorough. But does it really make our learning experiences markedly different? Does it in some cases make them worse? Blink is full of examples of people changing their product for the worse based on endless focus group feedback. It turns out people are terrible at knowing and describing their own minds in situations like this because it doesn’t allow “blinking”. The Pepsi/new coke example is worth buying the book for alone.

As learners: we have more information available to us than any group of people in history. Are we making better decisions as a result of that? Are we being efficient in the management of information available to us? Or are we wading out into the internet, getting lost in the woods, and forgetting what it was we were supposed to be doing? Where does informal learning and blink intersect?

A personal example. Earlier this week I had an interview with a respected learning guru. Keen to ensure I was up to speed on all the topics this person might want to discuss (and yes, to impress them), I went into hyper research mode. I read everything this person had written and all the blogs he refers to. I jumped from blog to wiki and back again. After a few hours my head was swimming. The thing is, I had known what I thought and wanted to discuss on all these topics already and the more I read, the less clear I was on where to focus. I met the person and we had a great conversation. After it I went back to check my notes to see what of the new research I’d done had proved useful or relevant for our conversation. Not one word of it. I had defaulted to what I instinctively knew in the first place. I should have blinked and missed it.



Shaping the future of learning

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