Monday, June 12, 2006


Blink is Malcolm (The Tipping Point) Gladwell's most recent book, a monograph about making snap decisions based on nothing but immediate impressions. So far, the thesis of this book seems to be: sometimes snap decisions are good. Sometimes snap decisions are bad. To be fair, Gladwell is also interested in what happens in the brain in the first two seconds it's confronted with a situation that make it come to an immediate conclusion. To be fairer, Malcolm Gladwell is a much more interesting, much better writer than I. Anyway, some random thoughts on the subject:
  • One of the first examples in this book made me think that the whole premise was crap. It's this: in a psych experiment, students are shown video of a professor teaching a class and then asked to fill out a teacher evaluation based just on that one class. They do, and the evaluations turn out to be remarkably consistent with evaluations completed by students who actually took a class with that professor. In the next iteration, students are shown the video for ten minutes and then asked to evaluate; the results are the same. In the next iteration, students are shown two seconds of a video and asked to evaluate the teacher; the evaluations are still consistent with those filled out by students who took a class from the professor. Ergo, you can tell whether you like a professor, whether that professor is a "good" professor, based on very little observation.

    Right now, at least two of my readers are screaming at their computer monitors, because they know another fact that's pertinent: teacher evaluations tend to correlate more with a teacher's age, gender, and general demographics rather than, say, actual effectiveness as a teacher. Here's what you can tell from watching an hour, or ten minutes, or two seconds of a video of a teacher: age, gender, and general demographics. So maybe what we really learned here is that people tend to decide how they feel about somebody within the first two seconds of seeing or meeting them and then never change their minds.

  • Second experiment. You're in a room with some furniture (tables, desks, chairs), an electrical extension cord, a pair of pliers, a yardstick, and some other detritus. There are two ropes hanging from the ceiling. The ropes are close enough and long enough that one could tie the ends together, but far enough away from each other that you can't hold on to the end of one and pull it to where the other one is. The task: tie the two ends of the ropes together. There are four ways to do this, so the researchers claim. If you want to play along at home, stop here and give it a quick ponder (Theme from "Jeopardy" plays. Thumbs are twiddled. Time elapses). Here are the first three: tie one rope to an item of furniture, move that piece of furniture towards the other rope, grab the other rope and bring it to where the furniture is. Make your arms longer, either with the yardstick or possibly a chair, so that you can reach the second rope. Finally, you could tie the extension cord to one rope to make it longer, so that it will reach the other rope.

    These solutions are kind of hard to think of if you're not in the room; e.g. it's not clear just reading about it that the yardstick will be long enough to reach the second rope while you're holding the first. There's a fourth solution, which nearly no one actually doing this experiment thought of initially: tie the pair of pliers to the end of one rope making a pendulum, and start it swinging so that you can grab it while holding the other rope. The trick of the experiment was this: when, as invariably happened, the experimentees couldn't figure out the pendulum solution, a researcher would go into the room to open a window or some such thing, and in so doing would "accidentally" brush one of the ropes and make it start swinging. After this happened, the subjects would immediately figure out the fourth solution. However, when asked what made them think of it, every person had a different story ("It just came to me," or "I thought of how I used to swing from ropes in gym class"), and nobody seemed to recognize that it was the researcher bumping the rope.

    Gladwell takes this as evidence of what he calls "the locked door," wherein you don't have conscious access to the unconscious inspiration that happens in your brain. It's not that the experimentees were lying, it's that they simply didn't have access to the information that would tell them they were inspired to make a pendulum, so they had to make something up.

    I take this as evidence of my favorite OaO chaotic bugaboo, The Post-Hoc Narrative Interpretation of Otherwise Unparseable Happenstance (must come up with a shorter name for that). Every one of those subjects believed, I'm sure, that the explanation they gave was in fact the actual cause of their inspiration (that is, he or she wasn't even aware he or she made it up), because we're well practiced in generating little narrative translations for the chemical signals that go off in our brain. What's unique to me about this experiment is not that its subjects made up a story to explain a thought they couldn't otherwise explain, because that's happening all the time, every instant of every day, every thought you have (c.f. my last post). What's unique about it is that there's an actual tangible source for the key inspiration--as Gladwell would say, we have a window through the locked door. In fact, I'd be willing to argue with Gladwell/you/anyone who cared that you can't actually make a case for the researcher brushing the rope being any more of a cause for the inspiration than whatever the subject him or herself came up with post-hoc. But that's probably a topic for another post.

Next: Pre Post-Hoc Narrative!
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1 comment:

dan said...

What a fun post.

This reminds me of a high school psychology class. The class was divided into groups; I was in a group with [my now-partner; then odd friend] Matt and others, and we were given a scenario wherein a ping-pong ball was in a deep hole and we had to devise a way to get it out with only a useless set of tools: a short string, a pair of scissors, etc. The only solution was to pee in the hole, which I came up with. However, once this came out in our discussion, Matt happened to be the one to share the solution with the class. Multiple people were impressed and communicated that it was very clever of him to have thought it up. He immediately forgot that he hadn't thought it up, and smiled and thanked his admirers. Shortly after, I whispered something to the effect of "hey...wasn't I the one who said to pee in the hole?" which we had a quiet laugh over.

To this day, whenever I'm confronted with a daunting conundrum, I feel the need to piss.

Anyway, this makes me think of family anecdotes, which are often lies. Usually, it isn't the truth that's important, but the narrative that endures. And endurance can be judged on many levels. Sometimes a story just sounds good, or is memorable, or is simply the most embarassing version, and therefore it is the one that wins out as truth.