Drowning in the data

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Emergence 2006

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Drowning in the data

Stephanie Hilton

Snap judgments, first impressions and the ideas that are made in a fraction of a second are all issues that Blink breaks down. Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly describes the way people can bring subconscious snap judgments into their cognitive processes to help make complex decisions in everyday life. In Gladwell's introduction he begins to explain the weight and importance of judgments made in split seconds, "Blink is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives- the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress" (Gladwell, 16). To most people these first impressions seem meaningless. Gladwell tries to show that if the skills of effectively interpreting these snap judgments can be harnessed, the result will be of indescribable value in everyday life.
Gladwell spends most of the book giving examples of how simple rules and looking at problems objectively are the best ways to draw conclusions about decisions in life. Gladwell explains how overanalyzing a problem is ineffective because focus of the bigger picture is lost, "You know, you get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning" (Gladwell, 125). This idea of how simple rules leas to surprisingly complex outcomes is a main theory of emergence. When it comes to the complexity and elegance of how a flock of birds move, generally it is concluded that the brilliance of the flow and direction is due to simple rules. Some believe that the flock simply follows a leader bird. When actually analyzed, there is no true bird that is conducting how the flock moves through the air. The question then arises, who is keeping these birds in sync with each other? The answer is that the birds are following a set of simple rules such as: mimic the movement of the birds to the left and right; if one birds decides to swoop down and land, then swoop down and land too. There is no rhyme of reason as to how these birds make these decisions but it can be concluded that there is no conductor or leader in this situation. Simple rules that lead to complex outcomes is a main principle in emergence and in Blink. Gladwell makes three main examples in his book of how a series of simple rules can change everyday cognitive thinking.
Believe it or not, there are some experts that can analyze a romantic relationship in a few minutes and determine, very effectively, if the couple will last in a marriage. Gladwell spends the first chapter of his book talking about an experiment in which couples are watched closely and specialists break down every bit of their interaction to determine if they really get along. The participants are hooked up to many monitors that judge their heart rate, how much they sweat and even how much they wiggle around in their seat. Then the participants (who have been in a romantic relationship for quite a while) are asked to talk about something that has been bothering them lately. The topic shouldn't be trivial neither a deep problem that would cause an argument. The subjects are video taped and watched very closely. Every second of the video is broken down into audio tones. Each tone has a meaning. The scientists conducting this experiment came to very significant conclusions. The tone of someone's voice can tell a lot about what they're truly thinking. They developed a set of rules that breaks down exactly what each millisecond of tone means in a relationship. These experts can determine, at a very high percentage, whether a marriage will last past a few years. This is an emergent idea because of the theme of simple rules leading to complex conclusions. A relationship is one of the most complex human interactions that one could imagine. To have a person put a couple in a room and tell them if their marriage will not last in about 5 minutes is incredible, but that's emergence.
There are a few specific taste criterias that go into deciding which foods are pleasing and therefore put out on the market. Gladwell met up with two food-tasting experts named Gail Vance Civille and Judy Heylmun. These women can eat a piece of anything and tell if the product will be a hit or miss in the stores, "Every product in the supermarket can be analyzed along these lines, and after a taster has worked with these scales for years they become embossed in the taster's unconscious" (Gladwell 182). These experts have followed a set of guidelines such as how much sweetener needs to be in a cola or how much crunchiness should be in a potato chip. The rules were studied for so long that now the decision of whether a product is "good" is instantaneous and usually right on target. These women as well follow the ideas of emergence by deciding on what simple rules will influence a whole population's preference to a product. They brake down the seemingly never-ending question of "will people like it" in a bite. That idea is so emergent because they're following simple textbook guidelines to determine what millions of people will prefer.
Psychics aren't the only people that can read minds, in fact anyone can be trained to analyze a set of rules about facial expressions that would allow them to accurately read minds. Gladwell worked with two brilliant men named Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen who developed a system to accurately define every single facial expression. The thought of reading minds seems incredible; it's something in the movies and sci-fi books. When there is a problem that seems overwhelmingly complicated, the idea of thin-slicing the problem in an emergent way into smaller issues is effective. In their work, these two men broke down the complicated issue of mind reading into simply reading combinations of facial expressions, "Ekman and Friesen ultimately assembled all these combinations- and the rules for reading and interpreting them- into the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, and wrote them up in a five-hundred-page document" (Gladwell, 204). Each facial expression on its own isn't usually important. There comes a split second when someone is interpreting a question or comment and subconsciously gives up these combinations of expressions that dictate exactly what they're feeling. Someone trained with the FACS system can immediately pick up on these subtle nuances. With the FACS system, emergence solves another huge problem with mind-blowing simplicity.
A key theory of emergence that was very consistent through Blink is the idea that complex conclusions can be drawn from simple rules and practices. Ant colonies do amazing things by following the example of the ants around them. There is no clear leader telling them to build tunnels or anthills, but over and over again these processes get accomplished. A relationship can be broken down into tones in everyday interactions. An educated prediction as to weather a food will sell can be defined by a set of simple rules. A liar is discovered in a fraction of a second based on a point where he or she makes a certain combinations of facial movements. These ideas of split-second decisions making and how simple rules can produce complex ideas are omnipresent in everyday life. If people educated in emergence can take a minute and listen to their intuition and thoughts on first impressions, the human race in general will be more inclined to make good decisions. The tip of the day is to take a step back and allow these snap-judgments to surface, "If you get too caught up in the production of information, you drown in the data" (Gladwell, 144).

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