Challenging my assumptions – and loving it

It turns out I quite like finding out why my assumptions are wrong. As long, that is, that there is a proper explanation for my unconscious errors. And that I am not the only one making these mistakes. Nobody likes to be the only one in the class who doesn’t get something…

So take class sizes. I remember well a conversation with someone years ago where there was concern about a child being the only one in their age group for the church class they should be in. The question was whether to put them in with a slightly older age group so they were not on their own. But he was left in a class of one because “parents pay a lot of money for their children to be educated in smaller classes”. Wrong. Well, not that some parents pay for this, but wrong that this is beneficial for the child’s learning.

How about the experience of the Blitz in wartime London? The expectation on both sides of the conflict was that the constant bombing would destroy the morale of the Londoners. The British government thought that three to four million people would flee to the countryside, others would refuse to go to work, the army would spend its time keeping control among the civilian population, and industrial production would come to a grinding halt. Except that none of that happened. Not what we would expect to have happened. Why?


Malcolm Gladwell looked in his book David & Goliath at these and many other examples of how what we think will be a disadvantage can sometimes be an advantage and vice versa. This book follows on from several others (not all of which I have, yet, read) which demonstrate his versatility and ridiculously wide areas of interest. As well as his ability to demolish my assumptions. He is something of a phenomenon, writing for the New Yorker for almost twenty years (that would be enough for most people, but he seems to manage to get his editor to give him time off to write his books as well) and, before that, the Washington Post. His website is insanely minimalist. If you are Malcolm Gladwell, I guess you can do that.

The (very simplified) answer, by the way, to the class size is that the right way of thinking about it is that both classes which are too large and too small are not good for learning. We probably thought that the smaller the class is, the better, but the benefits of reducing from 100 to 50 to 40 to 30 diminish, and beyond a lower number, results get worse rather than better. Seems obvious now.

And the Blitz phenomenon was because those being bombed fell into three categories. Those who died were in one category. But, without meaning to diminish the impact on them personally, there was no ongoing effect for them. The second category was those for whom a bombing raid was a near miss. They suffered from the shock of the experience and were left traumatised from it. But the third group, the vast majority, was the people for whom the experience was a ‘remote miss’ – they heard the sirens, the planes, the bombs falling, but the bombs fell a few streets away. Instead of being traumatised by the experience, they felt the opposite after a few times – they felt invincible. Gladwell gives an example of how they described the feeling:

When the first siren sounded I took my children our dug-out in the garden and I was quite certain we were all going to be killed. Then the all-clear went without anything having happened. Ever since we came out of the dug-out I have felt sure nothing would ever hurt us.

To put the size of the groups into perspective, there were around eight million people living in the Greater London area at the time, and less than fifty thousands deaths and fifty thousand injuries. So the ‘remote miss’ group was by far the largest, and this accounted for the lack of panic, and part of what we now call the ‘wartime spirit’.

In Blink, Gladwell looks at a very different set of questions. How is that we can sometimes make instant (and very good) judgements on something, better even than when we consider the question deliberately and thoughtfully?

We do it with people all the time. I remember hearing somebody speak in public one time. They were a senior leader in a church, much respected, very outgoing, very funny, very personable. And I didn’t buy it. Based on… what? I suppose I put it down to a feeling at the time, but that’s so vague as to be useless if you want to share the impression. ‘I don’t know him, but I had a bad feeling.’ Haven’t we all said something like that before – or the converse ‘I just had a good feeling about her’?

What Gladwell shows is how we are able to pick up on tiny clues without realising it. It’s usually based on experience and it happens behind what he calls a ‘locked door’, inaccessible to our conscious mind. But it’s something we start learning as babies. A baby will look at our faces to see what emotion is behind our words, and will start this unconscious learning process. It turns out that our facial expressions can be, and have been, categorised, and that they are universal. A tribe with no previous contact with other humans had the same reaction to a series of pictures of faces (yes, I’m wondering how they did that research as well) as people with similar backgrounds to us. When someone has spent time studying the process in detail, they are able to describe what they are seeing, put a vocabulary to it. But for most of us, it happens unconsciously and we cannot coherently or accurately describe why we feel a certain way when we encounter something. However I arrived at that almost instant judgement all those years ago, I was right. It took a while to see the evidence of that unconscious impression, but there had been something there that some part of me had picked up on.

Blink is a remarkable look at how we think – and how we think we think, which is quite a different thing.

And if you needed another reason to buy the book – you will also find out why the Pepsi challenge (Pepsi won against Coke in blind tastings) didn’t translate to relative sales success. And why male chief executives who are over six feet two make up almost a third of the population of chief executives but less than 4 percent of the population. And why our assumptions about our views on race equality might not be as straightforward as we believe.

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