The jam-test syndrome

March 8, 2005

Dear Judith,

Among my tropical, under the palapa reading I included "Blink,"
Malcolm Gladwell's new book on the values and pitfalls of quick
and intuitive decision-making. Lots of good stuff here.

For example, the various brands of products such as strawberry
jam are subjected to rigid tests by professional tasters.
White-coated experts compare a full clipboard of
criteria--texture, colour, viscosity, taste, etc. In an
additional spin, a bunch of randomly selected college students
are asked to give their opinion on the jams. One gulp of each
and these folks pretty well duplicate the results of the
experts. But that's not the interesting part. When yet another
group is asked to put into writing and to defend their choice of
the jams they get them all mixed up. Some of the poorest
quality jams come out on top, and some of the best score near
the bottom. Psychologists call this phenomenon "verbal
overshadowing." It seems that when we try to put our decisions
into words we get into the business of fooling ourselves and
muddying the waters.

Artists who jury shows, give crits, or rationalize the marking
of their students' work may have noticed the problem. In one
competition we jurors were asked to write a short evaluation of
each work entered. I remember watching my fellow jurors
squirming in front of work and not being able to say "why." One
guy was into changing his votes. Wisdom prevailed and the
keepers and losers were let be. One colleague remarked that
this was the reason art schools could be such wastelands.
"Art's a doing thing," he said.

Gladwell's book rather promotes the idea that in love and war,
in food and art, the quick, intuitive decision, without
verbiage, is the one worth heeding. The French call it "coup
d'oeil" (power of the glance). Recently I was asked to comment
on the authenticity of a newly discovered work by the well-known
painter, A. Y. Jackson. As there were fakes about, several
white-coated experts had had an inconclusive go at it and the
buyer was hesitant. One glance and I knew it was a phony--as it
was soon proven to be. I have a fair degree of experience in
cruising Jackson's work. This one looked okay, typical subject
matter, on style, correct pigments, the right ground, etc., but
it was the wrong "hand." It was "attempted hand," not his hand,
and that, in a glance, made the difference.

Best regards,


PS: "Our unconscious is really good at quick
decision-making--it often delivers a better answer than more
deliberate and exhaustive ways of thinking." (Malcolm Gladwell)

Esoterica: Gladwell notes that police officers are trained to
make quick decisions about when to shoot people. Sometimes they
get it wrong. It's not always good to make quick, visual
decisions. Auditions for membership in symphony orchestras have
changed over the last thirty years. Candidates are now
screened-off from the decision-makers who are also asked to
remain silent. The practice of auditioning behind a screen has
resulted in a remarkable increase in the hiring of brilliant
trombone players who just happen to be women.

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