Editors note: Charles S. Lauer is on vacation. This column first ran on Sept. 5, 2005. Blink has recently been released in paperback.
How we ‘thin-slice’ our surroundings, for good or ill
Some people have an innate ability to sort through what is and what isnt important. They immediately recognize important points and arent preoccupied by all the other factors surrounding the subject. Others cannot do this and get caught up in the trivial issues that distract from the main subject. This recognition is an enviable skill in this day and age when people and situations are not always what they seem. Its like a general who is able to see and make sense of what is happening on the battlefield without being distracted by all of the things on the periphery.
According to the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, this phenomenon is called coup doeil, which means power of the glance in French. Gladwell uses the examples of Napoleon and Patton to illustrate his point. Many of us look at things and are able to deduce that things are not quite right based on our experience and innate intelligence. Gladwell calls it thin-slicing. He says, We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of hidden fists out there, lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.
To prove his point, Gladwell details the first encounter between Hollywood producer Brian Grazer and actor Tom Hanks. This meeting took place in 1983, before Hanks was a household name. He came in and read for the movie Splash, and right there, in the moment, I can tell you just what I saw, Grazer said.
We read hundreds of people for that part, and other people were funnier than him. But they werent as likable as him. I felt like I could live inside of him. I felt like his problems were problems I could relate to. You know, in order to make somebody laugh, you have to be interesting, and in order to be interesting, you have to do things that are mean. Comedy comes out of anger, and interesting comes out of angry; otherwise theres no conflict.
But he was able to be mean and you forgave him, and you have to be able to forgive somebody, because at the end of the day, you still have to be with him, even after hes dumped the girl or made some choices you dont agree with. All of this wasnt thought out in words at the time. It was an intuitive conclusion that only later I could deconstruct.
The book is filled with all kinds of fascinating stories and revealing insights into how we think without ever realizing we are thinking. That said, why is it that some people follow their instincts and come out on top while others wind up falling on their faces?
One of the most intriguing stories in Gladwells book has to do with President Warren G. Harding. The chapter, titled The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark and Handsome Men, tells the story of a powerful lobbyist named Harry Daugherty who met Harding one day in 1899 while both were having their shoes shined. Daugherty was most impressed by Hardings appearance, and thus, the man himself. In that brief encounter Daugherty decided he would make a great president. The fact was that Warren Harding was not a particularly intelligent man. He liked to play poker and golf and to drink and, most of all, to chase women; in fact his sexual appetites were the stuff of legend.
Through this book Gladwell reveals that great decisionmakers arent those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of thin-slicingfiltering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.
Charles S. Lauer is the former vice president-publishing and editorial director of Modern Healthcare. He now is a consultant to the healthcare industry and also serves on the boards of healthcare companies.
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