Jan 07 2008

Snap judgments

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to ‘thin-slice’ events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)

This result is enough to give any teacher the heebie-jeebies. The thought that students have formed stable and robust judgments about you before you have even opened your mouth on the very first day of the very first class is unnerving. It seems so unfair that you are being judged before you can even begin to prove yourself. But, for good or bad, this seems to be supported by other studies, such as those done by Robert Boice in his book Advice for New Faculty Members.

The implication for this is that the cliché “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is all too true. And what Gladwell’s New Yorker article and book seem to suggest is that this kind of thin-slicing is something that all of us do all the time. But not all of us do it well. Some people use thin-slicing to arrive at conclusions that are valid, others to arrive at completely erroneous judgments.

Those who do it well tend to be people who have considerable experience in that particular area. They have distilled that experience into some key variables that they then use to size up the situation at a glance, often without even consciously being aware of how they do it.

Seen in this way, the seemingly uncanny ability of people to identify at a glance who the good and bad teachers are might not seem that surprising. Most people have had lots of experience with many teachers in their lives, and along the way have unconsciously picked up subtle non-verbal cues that they use to correlate with good and bad teaching. They use these markers as predictors and seem to be quite good at it.

I was self-consciously reflecting on this last week when I ran two mock-seminars for visiting high-school seniors as part of “Experience Case ” days. The idea was to have a seminar class for these students so that they could see what a seminar would be like if they chose to matriculate here. I found that just by glancing around the room at the assembled students at the beginning, I could tell who was likely to be an active participant in the seminar and who would not.

It was easy for me to make these predictions and I was pretty confident that I would be proven right, and I usually was. But how did I do it? Hard to tell. But I have taught for many years and encountered thousands of students and this wealth of experience undoubtedly played a role in my ability to make snap judgments. If pressed to explain my judgments I might say that it was the way the students sat, their body language, the way they made eye contact, the expression on their faces, and other things like that.

But while I am confident about my ability to predict the students’ subsequent behavior in the seminar, I am not nearly as confident in the validity of the reasons I give. And this is consistent with what Gladwell reports in his book. Many of the experts who made good judgments did not know how they arrived at their conclusions or, when they did give reasons, the reasons could not stand up to close scrutiny.

He gives the example of veteran tennis pro and coach Vic Braden. Braden found that when watching tennis players about to make their second serve, he could predict with uncanny accuracy (close to 100%) when they would double fault. This is amazing because he was watching top players (who very rarely double fault) perform on television, and many of the players were people he had never seen play before. But what drove Braden crazy was that he could not say how he made his predictions. He just knew in a flash of insight that they would, and no amount of watching slow-motion replays enabled him to pinpoint the reasons.

But Gladwell points out that we use thin-slicing techniques even is situations where we do not have much experience or expertise and these judgments can lead us astray. In later postings, I will describe the kinds of situations where snap judgments are likely to lead us to shaky conclusions and where we should be alert.

POST SCRIPT: Charlie Wilson’s War

The film with the above name tries to make a comedy out of the role that the US played in creating the Taleban in Afghanistan. Stanley Heller points out that this was no laughing matter for the million Afghans who died as a result of the geostrategic games played by the Soviet Union and the Carter-Reagan governments.

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