Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds

How To Improve the Decision-Making Environment
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 12 2005 1:56 AM

Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds

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Hi Jim,

You are quite right to point out that I'm deeply ambivalent about rapid cognition. When it works—as when an art expert can identify a fake in a glance—it can be truly spectacular. But as you point out, most of us aren't capable of those kinds of spectacular feats, and if we are to engage in successful rapid cognition, we need a lot of help. Yesterday I talked about what happened when the classical music world put up screens in auditions: That's a great example of help. In order to make for a successful snap judgment, you have to carefully and deliberately intervene in the decision-making environment.

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This idea is at the heart of what I consider (if I'm allowed to be immodest for a moment) to be the strongest chapter in Blink—the retelling of the story of the shooting of Amadou Diallo five years ago in the South Bronx. The police saw a black man—Diallo—pulling a shiny dark object out of his jacket, thought it was a gun, and shot him 41 times. Only after he lay dead in the vestibule of his apartment did they realize that what he was pulling out of his pocket was his wallet. Now, what should we do with this story? One response is simply to call it an inevitable byproduct of racism: Four white cops from Long Island confront a black man in the South Bronx and jump to an immediate, prejudicial conclusion. My problem with that analysis, though, is that it's not terribly useful because it says that the only way to prevent cops from making racist snap judgments is to get rid of racist cops. Is that really possible? I'm not sure that it is, anymore than it's possible to ensure that the heads of orchestras don't harbor sexist ideas about musicianship in their unconscious. What you can do, though, is find ways to mitigate the effects of those biased snap judgments, find ways of structuring encounters between officers and suspects so that racist impulses don't matter nearly as much.

For instance, one of the really interesting facts about police work is that an officer behaves much better—makes better decisions, fires his gun less frequently, has fewer complaints filed against him—when he is by himself than when he is paired with a partner. Officers on their own are far more cautious. Without the emboldening presence of a companion, they take far fewer risks. They don't pick fights, or put themselves into nearly as many ambiguous or dangerous situations, because they know they have no one looking out for them. How many officers were involved in the Diallo shooting? Four. That's a crucial fact. When they spotted Diallo and Diallo turned and ran back into his house, two officers provided backup in the car, and the other two gave chase. If Diallo had been spotted by a policeman operating alone, that officer would never have given chase, and as a result, he would never have been put into the position of making that terrible snap judgment. He would have stopped the car, taken cover behind it, called for backup. And Amadou Diallo would still be alive.

Or consider the issue of high-speed chases. We tend to think that high-speed chases are a problem because of the dangers they pose during the chase. That's true enough. But the real problem is the danger they pose after the chase. I cannot tell you how many cops I talked to who spoke of how disoriented and crazed and incoherent they were after racing after someone through streets at 120 miles per hour. You finally cut off the suspect's car. You charge out of the cruiser. You yank open his door. Your pulse is 175. Your heart is in your throat. Your body is awash in adrenalin and cortisol. And everything we know about human physiology and psychology says that no one can make intelligent snap decisions under those circumstances. So what should we do? Precisely what one police department after another around the country is now doing: ban high-speed chases. It was only when I talked to cops about this that I began to understand why so many people—particularly in the LAPD—are still angry over the charge that the Rodney King beating was the result of racism. Racism? This was a group of cops encountering a suspect after a terrifying high-speed chase. In that state, they would have beaten him up if he was a WASP from Bel Air.

So have I answered your question? I think ordinary people can be good snap decision-makers, so long as they get a little help. Sometimes that help is best found in the prescriptions put forth in The Wisdom of Crowds. (And if I were to make a criticism of Blink, it's that I'm not sure that the implications of my analysis are as clear as the implications of yours.) But sometimes I think we can achieve the same goals by tinkering with the environment in which decisions are made—like putting up screens or limiting ourselves to one officer per squad car. That, at least, is the hope behind Blink. I'll be interested to see if those who read it have the same generous and thoughtful response as you did, Jim.

Thanks,
M

James Surowiecki, a former Slate columnist, writes the "Financial Page" column for The New Yorker. Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker.

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