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“Many decisions are made in a heartbeat,” says Malcolm Gladwell

People may wish they had more time to study an issue and weigh all the options, but in reality, they most often pass judgment in a heartbeat, according to Malcolm Gladwell. “You get at the truth of someone—what you think is the truth of someone—instantly,” the author of the best-selling book Blink told alumni at the Business Book Roundtable March 10 at the Union League Club in Chicago.

If audience members were given the chance to evaluate a hypothetical Professor Smith, he said, it wouldn’t matter whether they’d spent a semester in his classroom or saw a five-second videotape presentation with the sound turned off. “What you thought was this conscious, rational, deliberate judgment made over the course of a semester was made in the first five seconds before Smith even opened his mouth,” Gladwell said.“What this says is that this kind of rapid cognition isn’t confined to love at first sight or impulse purchases at the grocery store. It’s at the center of how we make sense of the world. That’s why we need to take it seriously.”

The decision making process can be derailed by irrelevant information, he cautioned. For instance, more than 30 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are taller than six-foot-two. “It cannot be a coincidence that when you look in the executive suite, all you see are tall white guys. In some subtle way that boards of directors are not conscious of, they're making some kind of association between height and leadership that affects who they end up choosing.”

“These instincts we have about people get hijacked sometimes by biases and thoughts we're not aware of. One of our challenges is to become aware—to police our thoughts for these kind of subtle, contaminating forces.”

Patricia Houlihan