It would be better to drop by their house when they're not there and look around. Look at their bedroom, or their books and the art on the walls. Our personal belongings contain valuable information.There's a lot of confusing, irrelevant information in a face-to-face encounter, and it can screw up your judgment.
That leads to what you call the Warren Harding Error, the "darkside of Blink." What is that?
There are circumstances when rapid cognition can lead us astray. Harding was a tall, distinguished-looking man with a great voice who seemed like a perfect candidate. But most historians say he was one of the worst presidents ever. This often happens with tall men. We fall in love with them, and their height blocks other considerations about how good they are as leaders and managers.
And what's the result of this bias in favor of tall people?
It's striking. Among the general population, about 14.5 percent of all men are 6 feet or taller. If you look at CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 58 percent are over 6 feet. Over the course of a lifetime, the average man who is 6-foot-5 will make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than someone who is 5-foot-9.
You've made a strong case for the importance of first impressions. But if all this happens unconsciously, what can we do about it? Can we get better at "blink" situations?
There are ways we can educate our snap judgments, just as we can educate our deliberate judgments. When people become experts at something, it's not just their ability to logically sort through things that gets better. All that expertise, training, and experience makes them better able to know something in an instant. All of John Gottman's work on understanding marriage has made him a brilliant snap-decision maker about the quality of a marriage.
So we all develop better snap judgments in our own fields? You have a great example of that with a veteran policeman who calmly watched a kid pulling a gun out of his waistband. He didn't shoot the kid, who then dropped the gun on the sidewalk.
It's like the way top athletes will talk about things just "slowing down" when they're on a hot streak. They're not experiencing that moment like the rest of us do. The whole encounter with the kid took just a few seconds, but the officer's training and experience allowed him to stretch out that time and keep gathering information from that very thin slice. Instead of panicking, he's watching the kid's face to see if he's dangerous or just frightened.
You write that inferring the motivations and intentions of others is really a kind of "mind reading."
It's a basic, automatic thing we do all our lives, even as children and infants. In any meeting between two people, we constantly make predictions and inferences about what that person is thinking and feeling. Many arguments and misunderstandings happen because someone has failed to "read" the other person's mind.
Is that why you include a section on autism in the book?
Yes. Simon Baron-Cohen, the British psychologist, says that autistic people are "mind-blind." They lack the ability to interpret nonverbal cues like facial expressions, or put themselves into another person's head. But I argue that in conditions of stress, we can all suffer from a form of mind-blindness, sometimes with tragic results.