The three-day hiatus in blogging owes in large part to several visits to Doctors (the medical kind). It’s depressing business, sitting in hospitals for hours waiting in grubby offices, but I now know more about the Heart than I care to.
I visited a leading cardiologist two days ago. He sat my Mother down and checked her blood pressure. 140/90. He scribbled it down on a small paper (not on his diagnosis sheet). He proceeded to check her breathing and then, two minutes later, asked her to put her other arm forward and again wrapped the Blood Pressure sensor around it. The blood pressure this time? 130/85.
I frowned. How could the readings be different?
The Doctor smiled. He think took out his fancy pen from its holder and made a note on the diagnosis sheet. He saw the look of bewilderment on my face.
I asked him to explain.
“It’s simple, really,” he began. “Most patients come into my chamber for the first time feeling anxious. This accounts for a higher first reading. After a couple of minutes when they’ve warmed up to me, they relax, and I get a lower and correct reading.“
I pondered his statement. It did make sense. My Mother was quite the picture of nervousness when she stepped into his chamber, now she had settled down to a healthy chatter about her symptoms.
He pointed out that this pattern repeated itself for almost every patient who consulted him for the first time.
Now as I sit here writing this, I wonder about what he said and what it could mean for us. We, who have been told by psychologists and researchers that in a hiring process, most decisions are made within the first few minutes of the interview. We, who evaluate students (often many more student and very little time) in a hurry, quizzing the student in a viva-voce rapidly about his topic as we thumb through his project.
Is it possible that we may be making Type-II Errors?
If we are indeed choosing in the first few minutes, is there a possibility that we may be rejecting as unsuitable, candidates who may indeed be fit for the job?
Is it possible that the low grade on that project on the Incas was because the student was a first-timer to this kind of evaluation? Because he was nervous coming in? Maybe he really did know Inti from Pachamama?
Or does Malcolm Gladwell and his ‘Thin Slicing’ Theory hold true? In his seminal Blink (a book I loved, successor to Tipping Point which again, I devoured) points out that we make judgements about people within a few seconds of meeting them.
Let me give you an examples from his writing – it’s one from Teaching that you’ll love (and that may make you shudder!).
“Some years ago, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University, Nalini Ambady, together with Robert Rosenthal, set out to examine the nonverbal aspects of good teaching. She used videotapes of teaching fellows which had been made during a training program at Harvard. Her plan was to have outside observers look at the tapes with the sound off and rate the effectiveness of the teachers by their expressions and physical cues…. She showed her raters just two seconds of videotape and took ratings.
She compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations made, after a full semester of classes, by students of the same teachers. The correlation between the two, she found, was astoundingly high. A person watching a two-second silent video clip of a teacher he has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who sits in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.”
Gladwell mentions that in his view, any footage longer than the two seconds is superfluous: anything beyond the first flash of insight is unnecessary.
Clearly the students had decided, by the facial expressions and the body language how effective the teacher may be. It sounds uber-cool, the kind of research we’d all love to lap up. I love Gladwell and his work (he goes on to give other examples of snap judgements, even in interview situations), so would be inclined to agree.
But somewhere it doesn’t agree with me.
If fifteen of us were to sit together and watch footage a few seconds of footage of a potential teacher in the classroom (or in the interviewee’s chair) would any of us be comfortable making the decision to hire based on our median vote?
Ditto for grading a student on a viva-voce?
The fictional Severus Snape doesn’t have great body language. Nor did some of my most inspiring teachers. I would vote (my lowly teacher voice against that of the great Psychologists) in favour of the theory hinted at by the cardiologist – our recruits, our students, indeed all of us are anxious in new situations.
When evaluating, give these folks time to prove themselves.
I wonder what you have to say on this? I’m all ears.
Further Reading (as always, click on numbers to follow links):
#1: The New Boy Network (from the New Yorker) – the article that led to the writing of Blink, and the article excerpted above.
#2: Keen on Higher Ed? Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on the Social Logic of Ivy-League Admissions. You should read it to get a handle on what went on behind the heavy oak doors of Admissions Departments.
#3: Fun Aside! Will you be happily married or divorced? Predicted marriage-success in 60 seconds at the Love Lab (referenced in Blink)