Blink: Body language and the first two seconds

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Blink, he shows the ability – also well demonstrated in his hit book The Tipping Point – to pull together facts and data and to present them as an interesting story, while leading you towards a conclusion about what all these facts mean.

Blink, says Gladwell, is ‘a book about the first two seconds’.

As a society, we place a great deal of value on data, knowledge and information. But in reality we all make up our minds about most things very quickly, relying on our adaptive unconscious.

Those first two seconds are important whether you are a gallery curator faced with deciding if a newly-discovered work of art is a fake or if you are a police officer who thinks somebody might be reaching for a gun. (The book details examples of both, with tragic consequences in the latter case.)

But the first two seconds are important for all of us – whether we are deciding if we should trust someone, have a date with them or buy from them.

Here are three points that particularly grabbed my attention from the book:

Judging others
Gladwell tells a few stories of situations where people were asked to make assessments of others based on short video clips.

One interesting case was looking at surgeons who were the subject of malpractice cases.

The research showed that people don’t sue doctors because they’ve had bad medical care.

People don’t sue surgeons they like. They sue surgeons who haven’t shown them respect.

Surgeons who had never been sued spent on average three minutes longer with patients than those who were the subject of legal action – 18 minutes compared to 15 minutes.

That in itself is interesting but what’s even more interesting is that other people could identify the surgeons most likely to be sued by watching a short content-free video clip of their consultations.

The factor that had biggest impact in categorizing them was their tone of voice.

Those doctors whose tone of voice was felt to be too dominant were usually correctly identified as being in the sued group.

So its true that how you speak is often more important than what you say.

Making purchase decisions
An experiment was tried in the gourmet jam booth of an upmarket grocery store. Some days, 6 different jams were displayed – other days 24. You might think people would prefer the wider choice as they would find something to suit their exact needs.

However here’s the difference:

  • When there were 24 choices, 3% of passers-by bought something.
  • When there were 6 choices, 30% bought.

Jam purchase is a snap decision. So too many choices makes the decision difficult and your mind becomes confused.

So a bit of choice is usually good. Too much choice is often bad.

Driving your own mood
Psychologist Paul Ekman and his collaborator Wallace Friesen identified every distinct muscular movement the face can make. They identified 43 such movements, which they called ‘action units’ and they became expert at reproducing them all.

While this work has been used in many ways, one of their most interesting findings was that, after creating facial expressions relating to feeling bad, they started to feel bad.

In further research, they showed conclusively that just creating the facial expressions of feeling bad made people feel bad and show the same physiological responses as people who have a real reason to feel bad.

In a similar piece of work, German scientists asked people to look at cartoons while holding a pen in their mouth.

If the pen is held between your lips, it’s impossible to smile. If the pen is held between your teeth, you are forced to smile.

The people who held the pen between their teeth found the cartoons much funnier.

So if emotion can start on the face, and you want to make a good impression on others quickly, it’s best to start with a smile!