January 15, 2005

To Blink or not to Blink

I don’t need to read the whole book BLINK, the bestseller by NEW YORKER writer Malcolm Gladwell—a quick flip through it convinces me not to waste the time. The author’s contention is that many important decisions could be made much more quickly and just as effectively by discarding most variables as unimportant. He cites as evidence a study finding that college students exposed to a professor’s teaching for only a few minutes gave evaluations similar to those given by the professor’s own classes after a semester.

To anyone who knows college students, this is laughable. More realistic to turn the conclusion around: after a whole semester, students were unable to give a more well–considered evaluation than if they’d heard the professor teach for only a few minutes.

We all know the brilliant, committed, scholarly professor who gets low teaching evaluations because he isn’t a standup comedian, doesn’t stroke or spoonfeed in order to boost his annual raise, and expects his students to read and think about difficult material. A recurring experience for such professors is having a former student return years later and say, “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but you taught me more than anyone else.”

Apparently, the key to success in these pre–deluge years is going to be the ability to make ever–snappier snap judgments. Go to war or not? No problem, the fix was in before any of the evidence was gathered. Undo seventy years of lawmaking that makes most Americans’ lives less of a desperate struggle? We’re getting right to it! Destroy vast tracts of irreplaceable wilderness in order to feed our money addiction? Sure, who needs them, they’re not worth anything!

In a culture where sustained attention is obsolete, where the workforce has an almost 50% annual turnover rate, where the president doesn’t do nuance and subtlety is for losers, BLINK provides the perfect justification for those who feel most fulfilled when creating messes for later arrivals to clean up. Its cultural origin—not that anyone cares—is the Old West motto, “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

A more sensible view, it seems to me, is that "Only bad things happen quickly." That's one of thirty "true things you need to know" proposed by psychologist Gordon Livingston in his new book TOO SOON OLD, TOO LATE SMART. The "only" is hyperbole, of course, but the underlying truth is one that endures, and has endured, and will endure, after the fad for snap judgments has blinked itself out. And it’s authentic conservatism, not the reactionary madness that has misappropriated that honorable word.

You can browse these books, and lots of other stuff I mention in this blog, by clicking the amazon search button on my sidebar. (Including my own books, by the way.)

Thanks to G as in Good H as in Happy for the (b)links.