Which Information Really Does Matter?

Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds

Which Information Really Does Matter?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 12 2005 1:43 AM

Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds



I think your point that more information is not always better for decision-making is an important one. There's a famous study that was done of expert racetrack bettors that illustrates this point. The bettors were first given five pieces of information about the horses in a race and asked to predict the outcome. They were also asked how confident they were in their predictions. Then they were given, successively, 10, 20, and 40 pieces of information and asked to make predictions. The additional information didn't make their forecasts any more accurate. But it did make them (falsely) more confident in their forecasts. When it comes to data, frugality is often a virtue.


But there is a problem here that I think you glided over in your last entry, which is that it's often hard to know in advance which information is, in your words, "central to the outcome of a decision" and which is irrelevant or, even more important, corrupting. And figuring out which information really does matter (so we can make our decision-making more disciplined) isn't something we can do with rapid cognition. It often requires the careful study of data to see what factors are and aren't correlated with each other, and it requires an analytic approach that seems to belong more to the Standard Model. The decision to have people audition behind a screen wasn't made in a second, I imagine.

For me, this is the deep paradox at the heart of Blink, which is that rapid cognition often works best when there are well-defined rules or structures to guide the people using it. As you put it, we need a structure for spontaneity. We usually think of intuition as simply going with your gut, and obviously that is in part what rapid cognition is about. But I think what Blink shows, oddly, is that going with your gut will often lead you astray, if you're not keenly aware of the flaws that might be shaping your decision. Successful thin-slicing happens very quickly, but it requires a keen sense of self-awareness, too.

For all of my critique of experts, I think it's clear that much of the time they do have that sense of self-awareness, that ability to recognize what information matters and what doesn't. It may not always be articulated, but as you show, if you ask people who are excellent at thin-slicing to explain how they reached their decisions, it's clear that they're instantaneously screening out the irrelevant and letting in what matters. Their experience, their vast store of memories, and (I suspect) something special about the way they're hardwired allow them, in a sense, to structure their own spontaneity. This doesn't always work well, and they can still benefit from a more disciplined approach (as in the example of classical-music auditions), but a lot of the time this approach yields great results.

I am more skeptical, though, of the idea that everyone can learn to thin-slice consistently well, and that therefore it's a good idea for most people to rely on rapid cognition. When I look at the kinds of experts you write about—from firefighters to art critics to George Soros—I'm struck by two things: First, these people have spent an enormous amount of time working in their given fields; and second, I think they're probably naturally exceptional at pattern recognition. I'm just not sure that most people, even with more experience and even with the right structures in place, are going to make consistently better decisions via rapid cognition. In fact, as you point out, there are some situations in which it isn't even clear you want individuals making decisions: Cook County Hospital dramatically improved its record of distinguishing patients who were having heart attacks from patients who weren't by replacing the judgment of individual doctors with a simple algorithm.

My doubts aren't about the virtues of thin-slicing. I've thought for a while now that one of the reasons why the collective decision-making mechanisms I write about in my book—like, for instance, betting markets—work well is that in part they aggregate intuitions and impressions that people can't necessarily articulate, but that are nonetheless real and valuable. That's why I think Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds really do fit together. My qualms, really, have to do with the idea that for most people, the combination of rapid cognition and individual decision-making does make it harder to spot potential pitfalls and to correct mistakes in time to make a difference. I'm sure the collective product of our rapid cognitive judgments will usually be excellent. But when it comes to the average individual, I still wonder.

I guess I'll end with this question: At the beginning of your book you tell the story of experts recognizing at a glance that a Greek statue is a fake. At the end of the book you tell the story of four ordinary cops not recognizing in a glance that Amadou Diallo was an innocent man instead of a dangerous criminal. Is one of these stories a truer example of rapid cognition in action? And if (as I hope) it's the former, is there a way for ordinary decision-makers to make themselves more like those art experts and less like those cops?

In any case, I've had a great time. I hope we talk more about all this going forward. Thanks for doing this with me.


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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