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NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

23

Thinking Sideways: Exploring Pattern Recognition Acceleration

Malcolm Gladwell Journalist (The New Yorker) & Author: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

GK VanPatter Co-Founder, NextDesign Leadership Institute Co-Founder, Humantific  Making Sense of Cross-Disciplinary Innovation

NextDesign Leadership Institute DEFUZZ THE FUTURE! www.nextd.org Follow NextD Journal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nextd Copyright © 2005 NextDesign Leadership Institute. All Rights Reserved. NextD Journal may be quoted freely with proper reference credit. If you wish to repost, reproduce or retransmit any of this text for commercial use please send a copyright permission request to journal@nextd.org


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1 GK VanPatter: Welcome, Malcolm. Thanks so much for joining us in conversation. Before we get to Blink and “thin slicing,” let me ask you something personal. The kind of writing that you do involves a lot of dot-connecting and synthesizing. Where does that ability in you come from? When did you first become aware that you had such ability? Is this a natural aptitude, or did you learn that somewhere? Malcolm Gladwell: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a ready answer. I guess I’ve always been a horizontal thinker, not a vertical one. I don’t have the patience to dig down into a subject, so I’m left instead with the need to go sideways and try and link together disparate ideas. If I had to guess where it comes from, I’d guess my father, who is a mathematician known for the elegance and simplicity of his proofs. My father is the type of person who organizes and simplifies a field of mathematics. I suppose I’m trying to do the same thing.

2 GK VanPatter: In the day-to-day work of our consulting business, we often engage in a form of thin-slicing related to cognitive/problem solving preferences. From the very brief text that you have shared so far in this conversation and from the nature of your two books, I am guessing that you are what we call a Conceptualizer / Generator. Attributes of Conceptualizers include pattern recognition. In the context of design, Conceptualizers are great to have on the front-end of projects where a fuzzy situation needs to be defuzzed, problems need to be clearly defined and various dots need to be connected. In the context of your Tipping Point cast of characters, a rough analogy would be that Conceptualizers are the idea-centered version of your Connector. Conceptualizers are natural idea connectors while your Connectors are natural social connectors. We find a lot of Conceptualizers in the understanding business where pattern creation, clarity and sense-making are highly valued. In your earlier book, The Tipping Point, I noticed that you touched on the subject of cultural micro-rhythms recognition. It would appear that you were thinking about thinslicing long before Blink was written. Can you tell us something about that? When did you start thinking about rhythm pattern recognition? What was the original inspiration for Blink? Malcolm Gladwell: I’m not sure I ever explicitly started thinking about pattern recognition in this context. I'm really interested in expertise and in what happens when people gain experience in a particular domain. Of course this kind of unconscious, instantaneous pattern recognition is at the heart of expertise. So I was led naturally there. The inspiration for Blink was really just my growing awareness that psychology now believed that far more of our decisions were controlled unconsciously than we cared to admit. It seemed to me that that called for a re-understanding of how we make sense of each other and our world.

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3 GK VanPatter: Our readership spans many disciplines including design, anthropology, cognitive science and many others. For those few readers who have not yet read Blink, can you tell us what the official definition of ‘thin-slicing” is? Where does the term originate? Malcolm Gladwell: The term thin-slicing was coined by psychologists (led by people like Robert Rosenthal and Nalina Ambady) who were interested in the human tendency to draw conclusions about situations and people based on very "thin slices" of experience. So how long do I have to know you before I decide what kind of person I think you are? How much "information" do I have to gather before I make a prediction about whether you are, say, straight or gay, or friendly or unfriendly, or honest or dishonest? The gist of much of the thin-slicing work is that we don't take very long to jump to those conclusions and, surprisingly, we're pretty good at those snap judgments. Much better than we would ever have imagined.

4 GK VanPatter: You often write at the intersections of science and culture, which is never going to be an easy task. Obviously, Blink is not a scientific study in the traditional sense of the term. Did you intend Blink as a vehicle to set forth a new hypothesis regarding the ability of humans to do rapid pattern recognition? Or is it intended to suggest something else? From a journalistic standpoint, is this reporting, hypothesizing, a combination of both or something quite different? Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t really think of Blink as blazing any new trails theoretically. It’s really a summation of some of the most interesting new research in psychology on the subject of unconscious cognition, combined with old-fashioned story-telling to bring those ideas to life. I see myself chiefly as a translator – a bridge between the academic world and the lay audience. I wouldn’t put myself on the same level as an actual intellectual innovator, like a scientist.

5 GK VanPatter: I can see from your dot connecting and working horizontally that you are likely a systems thinker. I am not yet sure if you are a visual systems thinker. When you are writing do you make drawings of the various conceptual pieces and how they fit together? Or do you rely primarily on constructing concepts with written words? Malcolm Gladwell: That’s an interesting question. I do think visually a great deal of the time – or, at least, I find it really useful to describe concepts visually. I’m the son of a mathematician, and, of course, on a very fundamental level, mathematics represents the visual display of very complex ideas. As a child, I used to love watching my father work. He would sit at his desk with a blank page in front of him and make these precise notations with an architect’s pencil. There was something wonderfully precise and beautiful about it. Sadly, I can’t do that kind of visual representation in my New Yorker writing, and I haven’t tried in my books. But it’s definitely something I want to pursue in the future.

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6 GK VanPatter: CNN recently spent an entire hour talking about Blink in prime time. They took your book content and built additional TV-type stories around it. That was a great infomercial for you, Malcolm! Congratulations. You are obviously getting a lot of press. Let’s talk about some of the issues that were not in that CNN piece. Heck, I’m after the behind-the-scenes perspective that you haven’t talked about anywhere. :-) I would like to pick up on the notions of “expertise” and “pattern recognition” that you made reference to earlier in this conversation. I am interested in what we in the understanding design business would call the organizing principles of thin-slicing: the big chunks. There seemed to be numerous types of activities being organized under the umbrella term of thin-slicing. As a reader, I was wishing Blink had included a couple of visual models. In reading Blink twice, I noticed that the book seems to have several tracks running in parallel. I counted at least three tracks, or big chunks. In track one, I noted that more than fifty experts make an appearance in the context of various thin-slicing-related formal research studies. Most were psychologists. Their thin-slicing seemed to be based on years of subject study out of which comes a detailed model or taxonomy that is then time-compressed. In track two, I saw a fireman, policemen, a tennis-coach and a malpractice lawyer. This version of thin-slicing seemed to be expertise-based, but occurring without years of formal research, scientific validation or any explicitly expressed taxonomies to refer to. The fireman goes into a burning building, determines intuitively that something is wrong and flees minutes before the building collapses. I also saw numerous references to regular folks doing various forms of thin-slicing so I called this track three. This version seemed to be based not in any particular expertise, but rather in a general perception of our culture and its implicit or hidden values. Your stories of the unexpressed racial preferences and choosing packaged goods at the grocery store were for me examples of track three. Seeing that multiple types of thin-slicing seem to exist, I was not always sure if you were suggesting that such ability springs from an underlying deep mastery of a subject, or from something else. From your perspective, what is the relationship between expertise and thin-slicing? Is there an organizing architecture for thin-slicing? Malcolm Gladwell: That's a very good question. Thin slicing, as you point out, is really just pattern recognition. It is the ability to pick up the gist, the gestalt, of any complex phenomenon. What I think happens as we gain experience is that our data base of archetypal patterns grows more and more complex. In the case of the Getty’s kouros, the art experts looked at that sculpture, put themselves into the mind of the "sculptor" and asked themselves: Is this mind contemporary or 2,500 years ago? Does it fit the pattern of old? Because they had spent a lifetime studying what it means for a sculpture to be old, they had an extraordinary data base of archetypes to compare the kouros to. That's an example of specific expertise. Page 4 of 9


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But I think that there are a set of thin-slicing tools that virtually all of us master by the time we're adults. For instance, in driving, what does an unsafe situation look like? A middle-aged adult has a fatality rate about 40 times lower than a teenager in large part because of how good we get by our 40's or 50's at thin-slicing dangerous situations on the road. Or take another example: By the time someone has been a parent for four or five years, they are extraordinarily good at seeing patterns of physical or emotional distress instantaneously in their children. A skill, in other words, that is present in specific areas of expertise is also present in everyday experience.

7 GK VanPatter: I wonder, Malcolm, if there are apples and oranges here or just apples? In your reference to art experts thin-slicing the Getty kouros and regular folks thin-slicing while driving, might it be possible that we are talking about two different kinds of activities and at least two “data bases of archetypal patterns” (to use your terminology)? A critic might suggest that experts who have deep knowledge and experience in a specific field (including knowledge of its algorithms and taxonomies) are engaged in a very different kind of cognitive activity than others looking at the same phenomenon without that expertise base. If a cab driver was to try thin-slicing the Getty kouros he would likely be drawing on, and adapting as best he could, the expertise patterns of his trade and his personal (or could we call it foundational?) life archetypal patterns. In doing so, he would likely have a different perspective than the art expert. On the other hand, the art expert is likely quite capable of driving her car home from the Getty. Would you agree that discipline-specific expertise is quite different from general life expertise? Malcolm Gladwell: Well, yes. But driving a car is specific expertise. It’s just specific expertise that a broad cross section of our culture possesses. If everyone who got a driver’s license and owned a car simultaneously was required to take ten years of art history, then all of us would have a pattern-recognition ability when it came to art works. What’s striking about driving is that people with limited experience – teenagers, for instance – are really, really terrible at it. There is no general life experience involved with piloting a car. You need to spend hundreds of hours behind the wheel before you gain even an acceptable level of competence. So I guess what I’m describing is merely two versions of the same thing – one a mass version of specific expertise and one a rarified version of specific expertise.

8 GK VanPatter: It is a tricky business that you are describing there. I still wonder if it is possible to visualize the various archetypal patterns that humans draw from. The folks at UnderstandingLab can likely help you with that when you do the accompanying Blink workbook.  Recently I heard through the grapevine that you will be speaking at an upcoming AIGA design conference in Boston. Although I saw no reference to design in the Blink index, I did note several design-related stories in the book. Certainly aspects of the Blink concept connect to traditional design, as well as to some of the newfangled ways that designers are working with organizations. Will you be speaking at the conference on the connections between Blink and design? Page 5 of 9


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Malcolm Gladwell: I'm actually not speaking at that conference at all. (I had to back out.) I think when it comes to design, my chief interest is in understanding the kind of environments that best nurture good design. What struck me about Herman Miller (the company I used for a long case study on the Aeron chair) was how much trust they had in their designers. They were willing to back them and back their judgment, even in the face of very daunting and negative consumer research. They also had the confidence to grant their designers a good deal of autonomy. That's very rare, particularly in the current business climate. It takes a great deal of courage from management. I think people on the business side need to understand, though, that the dividends of letting designers design can be enormous. Look at the Aeron chair!

9 GK VanPatter: Understood. The good news is that you are speaking at a large design forum right now! Our readership has grown to the point where it is now larger then most conferences anyway. In the short time that we have left, we could talk about putting ice cream in round containers instead of rectangular containers and all of that consumer brand “shaping” business that remains part of the traditional design industry. However, I am guessing that you were likely asked ice cream container questions a million times on your Blink book tour. Instead, I would rather go in a direction that connects to newer territory for designers, and that is enabling the acceleration of understanding, ideation and decision-making in organizational settings. In a way, this also connects to what you said earlier regarding your interest in “understanding the kind of environments that best nurture good design.” We refer to that as designing the conditions for design and innovation. In the book, you said in reference to rapid cognition and a study that was conducted in Iowa related to gambling: “Our brain uses two different strategies to make sense of the situation. The first is the one we’re most familiar with. It’s the conscious strategy. We think about what we’ve learned, and eventually we come up with an answer. This strategy is logical and definitive. . . . It’s slow, and needs a lot of information. There’s a second strategy, though. It operates a lot more quickly. . . . It has a drawback, however, that it operates – at least at first – entirely below the surface of consciousness. It sends its messages through weirdly indirect channels, such as the sweat glands in the palms of our hands. It’s a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it’s reaching conclusions.” And later in the book: “The part of the brain that leaps to conclusions . . . is called the adaptive unconscious, and the study of this kind of decision-making is one of the most important new fields in psychology. The adaptive unconscious is not to be confused with the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud, which was a dark and murky place filled with desires, memories and fantasies that were Page 6 of 9


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too disturbing to think about consciously. This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of instead as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.” In reading Blink, I realized that what you were writing about was connected to part of the same universe in which design science operates today. Arguments about whether the computer is a suitable metaphor for human brain function aside, I could see connections there. In the book you seem to do a two-speed comparison between slow and instantaneous decision-making as per the above quote. I noticed this in particular because our work involves other speeds. Thinking in systems, it struck me that Blink was likely one dimension of a wider speed architecture. Again, looking for an overarching organizing principle, I wondered what it would look like if we changed hats and thought about a bigger speed universe. If the Blink concept represents maximum speed – instantaneous decision-making – I wondered what picture would emerge if we backed up from that degree of acceleration. If we did so, I believe it is likely that we would then enter the realm of the innovation acceleration business, even though we would be slowing down in comparison to the maximum speed of Blink. For myself, I imagined a larger five-part speed universe taxonomy that looked something like this, in reverse order from fastest speed to slowest: Speed 5. Instantaneous (Blink) Speed 4. Super Fast Speed 3. Fast Speed 2. Slow Speed 1. Glacial Some of the newer design consultancies get involved in designing what we refer to as innovation acceleration tools. These are visual tools designed and built for organizations to help accelerate not judgment alone, but both the divergent and convergent thinking that occurs during the innovation process. The theory in motion is that if we can accelerate understanding, we can accelerate (and increase the quality of) both ideation and decisionmaking. As you correctly point out in Blink, the traditional notions of decision-making are very deliberate, studied and slow. Of course in a business context, the term “acceleration” is relative. To business leaders, moving from Speed 1 to Speed 3 or 4 can translate into huge advances in the marketplace that is itself moving at various speeds depending on the industry. While organizations like the Post Office move at speed 1, Apple is likely moving at Speed 3.5. Some designers today are working to help organizations build methods and tools to enable humans and organizations to do that. This work now plays a significant part in how we design the conditions for design and innovation. Certainly I would recommend Blink to anyone in the design innovation business or otherwise who is interested in the subject of human thinking acceleration. Of course shaping ideation and decision-making tools leads to the inevitable questions regarding bias of the shapers and the potential for manipulation. Certainly these are Page 7 of 9


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challenges for any of us in this business. My sense was that underneath all of the case studies in Blink is an underlying message that we are as humans ultimately responsible for how we shape perceptions, and that we are to a large degree caught up in how perceptions have been shaped historically. Is this a correct assumption on my part? I wondered what was at the core of your interest in this aspect of Blink. Were you concerned about how perceptions can be and are being manipulated? Were you concerned about how perceptions have been shaped historically? I wondered if there was something that happened in your life that brought this to the forefront of your concern and interests? Malcolm Gladwell: I think my interest in this kind of thinking began with my interest in racism. As someone who is (half) black, it’s naturally a topic that comes to mind. What always struck me about racism was that it was the flip side of a kind of automatic unconscious thinking that can otherwise serve us very well. Isn’t the sensation of seeing someone and making an instant and largely unconscious judgment about them based on the color of their skin the same – or at least feels the same – as the sensation of making the very best kind of creative snap judgment? My interest in this kind of phenomenon is hardly new, of course. The unconscious has been an obsession of psychologists since Freud and beyond. But I guess I just wanted to explore it in a very prosaic, commonsensical, journalistic kind of way.

10 GK VanPatter: Our audience of designers will appreciate the fact that as a pattern creator you inevitably have to encounter the back seat drivers, the critics, the skeptics and the many fans of your work. A summary of the reviews of Blink published in twenty five+ “news publications” including Salon, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Toronto Star are now posted on the metacritic.com site. The reviews range from “Outstanding” to “Favorable” to “Mixed” to “Unfavorable”. Many more positive reviews are listed there than negative ones. What do you think of when you see those reviews, the supportive ones as well as the critical ones? Malcolm Gladwell: Well, all reviews – even nasty ones – are good, because it means that your work is actually being taken seriously. So I guess my first response is gratefulness. The only kind of negative review that frustrates me are the reviews that take me to task for not delivering a straightforward verdict about unconscious cognition, because I didn’t want to deliver a verdict. Or, rather, I don’t think you can deliver a verdict. There aren’t really any pat answers here. What I wanted to write, instead, was just an exploration of this dimension of our thinking, and to encourage readers to try and work through for themselves the implications of some of the ideas I raise – like you’re doing here. Thankfully most reviewers take the book in this spirit.

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11 GK VanPatter: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Malcolm. I have enjoyed this. What’s next for you? Malcolm Gladwell: I’m back writing for The New Yorker. At the moment, I’m writing a big piece about racial profiling. I think there is something really interesting to be said about the kinds of categories that we construct to help make sense of tasks like looking for terrorists or drug-smugglers. I also want to write something about my new preoccupation – magic! I’ve been reading through tons of books about illusions and mind-reading and sleight of hand, and I’ve been going to see lots of magic shows. We’ll see what I come up with! Thanks. This has been fun.

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Thinking Sideways: Exploring Pattern Recognition Acceleration