At one of the airports during my recent trip, I had to use up some loose change. It’s one of those strange situations – the currency in your hand has value, but as soon as you step onto the plane it’s worthless. Nowhere outside the country will change coins for you, and if it’s a small amount in notes the currency exchange fees will probably eat up all the value. So, one strategy is to turn soon-to-be-worthless currency into something that will still have value even after the plane starts taxiing.
I ended up buying a book, of course.
I had been eyeing off a Malcolm Gladwell book – the one before Outliers, which I’ve already read. I ended up converting my useless Hong Kong dollars (or whatever they were, I forget which airport it was) into something with persistent value. Which was lucky, as I didn’t get around to reading it until about a month later.
People make snap judgements, but some are better than others
The basic idea of this book is obvious to anyone: that people make snap judgements. However, Gladwell tries to find those times when the snap judgements are interesting, because they are occurring subconsciously, or they are uncannily correct, or they are disappointingly wrong. He describes those times to us with his usual style of clear writing interspersed with interesting anecdotes and off-beat research.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t take away from the book much in the way of practical lessons. It seems that he was trying to write an up-beat book, to show the potential of snap judgements, but I felt a number of the negative cases tended to counter that message. Although someone can be trained to overcome the bias in subconscious judgements, it is not enough to be aware of the subconscious judgement. Also, it turns out that even experts in their field are not always able to say when a snap judgement is going to lead you astray.
However, I still found it fascinating. In particular, I loved the parts about the police, and also the story about the cataloguing of every possible facial expression.
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