Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blink and the need for Christian evaluation

Flying across the country last week, I did what many people do, at least judging by the offerings of airport newsstands—read a book by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm a fan of his writing because he finds really cool social science studies, organizes them toward a larger theme, writes well, and, even though he has the name of a British pensioner, he's a hip young guy with great hair.

His book Blink claims to show how to make great decisions based on intuition--“the power of thinking without thinking.” However, I would recast the theme of his book as pointing toward the importance of empirical verification.

Here’s why:

At first glance, Blink might seem to tell us that we can make great, intuitive judgments in an instant, like the introductory story of art historians knowing at first glance that a statue is a fake. But… it turns out that we need to have some basis in expertise to make accurate intuitive judgments. For example, Gladwell himself failed to accurately judge married couples' interactions when he did not have the pscyhologist Gottman's information developed from years of study.

So then we might think that we might have proper intuition in areas in which we are experts, but this still doesn't go far enough because, as Gladwell convincingly argues, the assumptions of experts are often wrong. For example, he tells the story of a music conductor wrongly rejecting women in orchestra tryouts because he believed that women were inherently incapable of playing some instruments well. Certainly the conductor was an expert, but his “intuitive” judgment was dead wrong, as discovered when women were chosen at anonymous, screened try-outs.

What, then, makes for good intuitive judgments? Blink suggests that they happen when we have developed (or borrowed) expertise rooted in empirical verification. So, the psychologist John Gottman; can accurately predict marital futures simply by observing couples’ interactions because he has statistically examined which factors indeed matter. An art historian spends years examining a museum collection with a European expert, and after that he can spot . A research subject loses more money using strategy “A” rather than “B”, but after enough trials they intuitively “know” this.

The answer, then, is empirically-based intuition.

This raises interesting questions for Christians. In our belief system, some of the decisions we make are of the utmost importance, so we should be motivated to make good ones. For example, a church leader developing a new program, a pastor writing a sermon, or an individual studying the bible. Nonetheless, there is little tradition of using empirical evaluation to guide this type of decision making--somehow doing so seems “unspiritual.”

The message of Blink suggests that we may not be able to make consistently good decisions without doing empirical work as well.
For additional essays about church life:


Benjamin said...

Interesting stuff... I loved BLINK... I thik it has lots of implications for leaders, pastors, etc. I've often thought of the "blink ability" as almost akin to the spiritual gift of leadership, discernment and/or wisdom... but you've given me something to think about.

brewright said...

Thanks Ben, for:
* Recommending Blink to me
* Posting
* And perhaps being the only steady reader of this blog :-)

It's interesting to think about the relationship between blink (which has an empirical basis) and spiritual wisdom (which has a ? basis).

Hm-m-m-m, good question.