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Evaluating first impressions

College students will be taught all kinds of information, but that is only part of their education, Malcolm Gladwell said at the University of Miami’s third annual Fall Convocation.

“A bigger part of your education is not learning individual facts about things but rather learning how to think,” Gladwell said.

Gladwell, who writes for The New Yorker magazine, spoke to group of more than 700 students, faculty and staff about his recent best-selling book, Blink, and related topics at the BankUnited Center on Wednesday.

In his address, Gladwell discussed several stories included in Blink, such as one involving art experts being able to spot a fake statue upon first glance, whereas the museum’s experts and staff could not.

The outside experts were able to do so, Gladwell said, because the real task in making effective judgments is simplifying one’s decision process, not complicating it.

“That is a really, really difficult idea for us to wrap our hands around because so often we think that the key to being smarter is simply gathering as much information as we possibly can and we think that’s what makes us smart, and that’s not true,” he said.

In this case, Gladwell said that the museum’s experts gathered too much information on the supposedly 3,000-year-old Greek statue, called a kouros. In doing so, he also said that they were trying to satisfy their desire to prove that the statue was authentic.

On the other hand, Gladwell said, the outside experts could tell within a matter of seconds that the statue was a fake because it instantaneously and subconsciously did not match with their extensive knowledge of what a real one looked like.

“What makes us smart is being able to sift through those things and to gather a few key variables that will matter,” he said. “I don’t think we fully acknowledge just how important this notion of judgment is and what it means to make good decisions.”

Relating all these ideas to the students in attendance, Gladwell said that they are taught to slow down and gather all the evidence, like those at the museum, before making a conclusion.

“We implicitly believe that this is the right way to make all decisions that are major and consequential,” he said, but emphasized throughout his speech how everyone should also be aware of the power of split-second impressions.

Even if one is cognizant of this decision-making process, it is easy to know why.

“We think that we can all explain exactly the way our minds are working and we forget that sometimes there are things we really can’t explain,” he said.

Something he could easily explain was how his most recent book come to life.

Gladwell said that it took him about two and half years to write Blink, but that he had the idea much earlier.

“A lot of it did have to do with sort of a dumb story,” Gladwell said in an interview with the Hurricane.

He said that he used to have really short hair and after he grew it longer he was stopped by police all the time.

“It happened so often that I got really curious about what was going on,” he said, “how it was I could make a minor change in my appearance and create a major difference in the way people see me and I thought that was a sort of interesting topic to explore.”

Gladwell said that he already has another topic in mind for his next book, but has not yet begun writing.

Greg Linch may be contacted at g.linch@umiami.edu.

September 8, 2006

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The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami


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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.