Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” has been sitting on my shelf since my librarian mother-in-law gave it to me as a Christmas gift probably around its release in 2005. I started reading it but got distracted by other things. I’ve always wanted to read it and now I had the time (or made the time).
In his book Gladwell explains the way our mind jumps to correct conclusions based on our subconscious’s ability to size up a situation immediately and make snap decisions. Some would call this intuition to others it is a process to be studied. This process of rapid cognition is where “our unconscious finds patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” is called “thin-slicing” (Gladwell, 2005, p. 23). This process can be an amazing benefit as when art experts are able to judge the validity of art statures at a glance. Or when the longevity of a marriage can be determined with 80% accuracy by viewing couples engaging in single conversation. But there are times in which our rapid cognition fails or we fail to recognize it. These times include the President Harding effect when the likability factory overrides our better judgments of character or when we are given to think that having an abundance of information will guarantee positive outcomes such as in the Millennium Challenge war games exercise.
This book explored the positive and negative effects of our ability to make decisions in a blink of an eye. Rather than calling it intuition and leaving it at that, Gladwell explores this hidden process by gathering the accumulative scientific knowledge that has been studying this affect and illustrating them through examples.
What can Librarians Learn?
While being able to predict which newlyweds will still be together in ten years or how to spot double-faults in tennis are interesting examples of thin-slicing, they do not seem to be of much help to a librarian performing his/her normal duties. What other information can we gather from “Blink” that is important to librarians?
One of the examples that Gladwell details through a few examples in his book is the ability of people to “mind read” others’ thought processes by observing, if only subconsciously, facial cues. Psychologist John Gottman trains other psychologists to be able to determine a marriage’s success is based on spotting slight facial changes, lasting only milliseconds, like anger, jealousy, fear and contempt when the couples engage in normal conversations. The works of Silvan Thomkins and Paul Ekman mapped out the range of hundreds of facial muscle movements as they correspond to emotions. So I imagine a time in which a reference library can use these facial cues to assist a patrons during a reference interview. Patrons often come to the reference librarian with a vague notion of what they are searching for. Getting at the heart of the inquiry can be a long process of questions and probing. Some librarians can instinctively fill in what patrons are leaving out of their description. But if librarians in the future are trained to spot facial cues, the same way the marriage observers are trained to spot marital stress, then they can identify what a patron really wants quicker and more accurately. The librarian becomes a mind reader, so-to-speak.
Having too much information and operating within a ridged set of processes is not always ideal. ER doctors must evaluate patients complaining of chest pains quickly. Family history, weight, diet, medical conditions and many other factors have to consider before admitting them. But it has been proven that by disregarding all the possible condition combinations and asking four questions produces a more accurate diagnoses of myocardial infarction. In another example, the Millennium Challenge war games pitted the superior Blue Team with its greater military force, abundant intelligence and command scenarios for conceivable enemy actions against the lesser equipped Red Team. Retired Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper was given the command of the fictional Red Team. The Blue Team with its vastly superior means of gathering and accessing the battlefield information was expected to win. Van Riper’s inferior Red Team struck a decisive blow to the Blue Team in the first few days of the war-games scenario. Red Team out smarted the informational superior Blue Team by using non-conventional tactics; thinking outside the box.
Librarians can use the same principles when helping patrons. The job of librarians is to help patrons navigate the overwhelming amounts of information available to patrons. Having too much information, like with Team Blue, can cause inaction through over analysis. Instead of approaching a reference problem the same way each time, librarians should gather the skills to be free thinkers and think outside the conventions. This helped Van Riper and it can help librarians.
There is a final trick of the mind that Gladwell explains in the chapter section aptly titled “Taking Care of the Customer.” It is about a car salesman who out preforms his colleagues by not pressuring the customers and treating everyone equally; in other words, turning off his unconscious, immediate thin-slicing assessment and letting his interaction with the customer guide the direction of communication exchange. Gladwell explains that people can be conditioned act differently if they are prepared beforehand. This is shown convincingly when it comes to race. What can the librarian learn? Librarians need to be more like the successful salesperson and be prepared to turn off our preconceived notions. This is especially important with it comes to intellectual freedom and the right of patrons to read whatever they want without judgement. Or when it comes time to acquire materials for the library, having an open mind that is not prejudging the materials is important. Sometimes our first impressions are not the best.
For more information, I found this thirty minute interview of Malcolm Gladwell discussing “Blink”
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking wihout thinking. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Gregg, A. (Nov. 6, 2010). Malcolm Gladwell – Blink – full show Retrieved 2/21/2013, from http://youtu.be/3TRioBKpUwY