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« sxsw: leveraging solipsism | Main | sxsw: daniel pink on "a whole new mind" »

March 14, 2005

sxsw: malcolm gladwell keynote

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Posted by Liz Lawley

This is the talk I’ve been looking forward to for months, but I’m a bit worried. How could the talk live up to the book(s)? That’s quite a challenge.

Gladwell opens with a story from his latest book, Blink, about a woman auditioning for the Munich philharmonic, not realizing that the director really only wants men. She auditions from behind a screen, and thinks she’s done terribly. She’s despondent, begins to leave for Italy. Audition is a classic example of a snap judgement—the maestro has already decided that she is the new first trombonist of his orchestra. When she’s introduced to him, he’s astonished to find that she’s a woman.

(Turns out that Gladwell is as wonderful a storyteller in person as he is in his book. Maybe better. This talk is worth the trip to Austin.)

At the time, very few women played in professional orchestras anywhere—it was generally believed that men were inherently better musicians, based on “objective measures” such as auditions. Many theories were proposed to explain it, but the underlying supposition wasn’t changed.

But when orchestras formed unions, they decided to force all auditions to be behind a screen to reduce favoritism. The moment they put the screen up, an extraordinary thing happened: they started hiring women. In large numbers. In fact, the percentage of women musicians in orchestras raised quickly from 5% to 50%, meaning that women were winning more of the auditions once the screen was in place.

Does this suggest that women are inherently superior? Perhaps. But more importantly, what certainly suggests is that the evidence of the maestro’s eyes overrode the evidence of his ears.

There’s an enormous amount of complexity underlying snap judgments. So, what can we learn about how we make decisions from this story?

Snap judgments play a much bigger role in the way we make sense of the world than we normally acknowledge. As an example, professor evaluations based on a one-hour video are virtually identical to those based on a full semester’s course. In fact, this holds true for a 1/2 hour video. And, it seems, even after 5 minutes. And, incredibly, even with the sound turned off, it remains the same.

(My snap judgment of Gladwell? w00t!)

The maestro was entirely unaware of the flaws in his judgment. He would have been outraged at the suggestion that his decision-making was compromised by sexism.

We are really, really bad at knowing the things that influence our snap decision-making, and unaware of the ways our decision-making can be hijacked.

He talks about the CEO height issue (also in Blink). In the general population, less than 4% are over 6”. But an overwhelming majority of CEOs are. One can provide a number of arguments as to why this is. For example, genetics may have caused size and leadership to be inextricably linked (can’t possibly convey his storytelling skills here).

Nobody would admit that decision-making of boards of directors is as flawed as the maestro’s was. They would not believe that height would influence their decisions. They would never believe that they were deliberately rewarding tall white guys. They would be outraged by that accusation. Height is not the most important consideration, perhaps, but it is foolish to believe that this has not influenced and biased the decision-making process in favor of the tall.

The maestro was a bad decision maker, but we made him into a better decision-maker by taking away information. In the audition, so much of the information being transmitted was visual. We have a powerful cultural presumtpion that more information makes us better decision makers—bad decisions must be related to insufficient information. Quality of decision is supposed to be related to quantity of information.

In the book, he talks about diagnosing heart attacks. It’s very difficult to do. This is inherently a snap judgment—you have to decide quickly. How do you help the doctor make a better decision? The answer is, you take information away. If you limit them to only four pieces of info - ekg, bp, fluid in lungs, ?? — they become significatnly better decision makers. This is extremely difficult for doctors to accept, because it flies int he face of what they’ve been taught.

So, suppose we want to change the way maestros make decisions. What do we do? How can we approach this? We can’t wait for them all to be replaced with those with “pure, clean, liberal hearts and minds.” What if instead we change not the decisionmakers, but the context in which the decisions are being made?? (The problem in the music world was changed the day they put up screens; one orchestra hired four women for four open violinist positions the first time they did auditions with screens.)

Tells the story of Amadou Diallo, which he reconstructs in the last chapter of his book. It’s a 7-second incident (he counts to 7 with great dramatic ffect). How do we prevent this? One approach is to say “we need cops who aren’t racist.” “Fine, he says. “But that’s not a solution, is it?” This isn’t a problem where we have the luxury of time.

Glad well says that in addition to changing hearts and minds, we must change the environment so that better snap judgments can be made. For example, police officers in groups make much worse decisions than those on their own. Groups of young men in general do stupid things! They speed up the situation, they feel emboldened by their buddies. A cop on his own doesn’t do that. He slows things down. He’s less of a risk to the community, and less of a risk than himself. One cop doesn’t jump out of his car and rush after a black man on the street; by the time he’s called for backup and tried to explain the context, you no longer have that kind of poor snap judgment.

The book ends with a call to examine the environment where we make decisions, and to examine where our decisions are good, bu tmore importnatly where they are compromised.

First question from the audience: how do you decide what information to take away?

He says there are two answers to that. In the heart attack approach, that was determined through detailed computer-based analysis. But the other approach says that it doesn’t matter what you take away so long as you take things away.

Perhaps, he says, this is why bloggers often have important insights—they’re not as immersed in the copious details of information that a reporter is likely to have.

(I would love to see a debate between Gladwell and Tufte on the reason for the Challenger decisions.)

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Glen Raphael on March 14, 2005 5:06 PM writes...

Steven Landsburgh wrote a good column relevant to the tall CEO issue here:

The key finding of some clever economists was: "Tall men who were short in high school earn like short men, while short men who were tall in high school earn like tall men."

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2. Dave Carpe on March 16, 2005 9:49 AM writes...

uh, this orchestra union change is kinda old news, not sure that gladwell is so genius for drawing attention to it - though it serves as a nice example...specific point that he missed was (for example) a detail, and very important - this union change was NOT just about getting women in, it was also about AGE discrimination. by cloaking musicians, the selection panels were unable to assume that one must have nearly a decade or more of experience, gray hair etc...a female friend went through this very exercise, one of the youngest women ever selected by a top 15 orchestra. the woman with low self esteem and a lack of self confidence described by him is a bit trite...

another omitted item: the veil is lifted in the final stage of selection, and this can be a very unnerving experience for the musician. gladwell clearly fails to address how this change in practice cuts both ways...

readers interested in gladwell's concepts might be better served by studies in real human behavior, not cleverly worded managerial descriptions dumbed down for business readers (e.g. attention deficit disorder, behavioral multi-tasking, prurient personalities, cognition or other subjects that have alluded somewhere to the power of 'snap reactions' and quick decisions in more concrete terms)

...and as for the comment about doctors working with fewer critical symptoms? right. tell me how great you think that is when your brilliant "thin slice" prognosis fails to recognize the onset of a debilitating disease because your key symptoms are never collected in volume or abstracted out far enough to recognize that they form a syndrome...

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3. Liz Lawley on March 16, 2005 9:54 AM writes...

Um, Dave, this was a on-the-fly summary of a conference presentation. The talk had more detail than the summary, and the book has more detail than the talk.

Lighten up, dude.

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4. Darwin on March 16, 2005 10:57 PM writes...

Gladwell is imo super overrated. "Tipping Point" repeated itself for 400 or so pages and didn't really have much meat on the bone..


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