He gives examples of antiquities specialists, firefighters and generals who are able to effectively glance at a situation and come up with accurate impressions. The antiquities specialists could identify a forged statue at a glance, even though the museum had documents authenticating the item. A firefighter was able to predict flashover (the moment when the air ignites in a fire) and save his crew, even though the visual evidence pointed to a small kitchen fire. The general was notorious for his ability to manage complex and intricate assaults but rarely took field reports from his troops. All of these people were able to draw on their expertise unconsciously to make decisions, even when the apparent evidence was against them.
That appears to be the key. In order to make good decisions in a split second, we have to have a certain expertise in the subject at hand. Otherwise we can get thrown by unconscious manipulation and expectations. Gladwell shows how focus groups end up restricting creativity, since most people have an unconscious negative reaction to new things. We are cautious when confronting something strange which means unexpert focus groups will automatically reject things outside their comfort zone, even if they would end up liking it if they had more time. (This explains a lot about why TV and movies have been getting more and more repetitive, since the big studios rely a lot on focus groups to decide what to produce.)
Gladwell also spoke about our unconscious prejudices and how easily we can be manipulated. He ran an experiment with university students where they had to memorize lists of words and repeat them to the tester. They thought it was an exercise in memory retention but the real test came after. The students were told to bring their scorecard to him and hand it in. But he was talking to a graduate student about her thesis. The test was to see how long they would wait to interrupt him. Some of the students had been given lists with words like important, hurry, etc and those interrupted after three to five minutes. Other students had been given lists with considerate, patient, etc and they waited ten minutes to interrupt.
Gladwell also found a way to change scores on the Implicit Association Test (IAT). There’s been a lot of talk about how this test reveals implicit and unconscious bias, showing how people take longer to associate positive words with African-Americans or business terms with women, etc. He found that showing people a short film about Martin Luther King Jr. or Barrack Obama right before the test negated the bias. The effect didn’t last long but it suggests our unconscious biases might be easier to fix than we ever thought. Daily counter-prejudice messages or visuals might have more effect than we thought.
It’s an interesting book and it’s making me more conscious of how I think. I agree with him that we would do better as a society if we understood how our unconscious mind can influence our actions, for better or worse.