I started re-reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell recently. While I read the book almost a decade ago, I thought it was time to revisit the text. Several colleagues have been talking about the power of the blink test in our work with students. So, I decided to pick up the book again. Blink discusses the power of “thinking without thinking” and the “impact and consequences of instantaneous impressions and conclusions.” If you haven’t read anything by Gladwell, he’s worth your time. In his books, Gladwell uses stories and research to bring home elaborate and nuanced concepts. Like his other books (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath), Blink will definitely not disappoint.
Blink was originally published in 2005 and I can remember reading it soon after it came out. I was in a very different place professionally and personally. I was teaching high school and my daughter was only four at the time. Fast forward a decade and I’m now teaching at the collegiate level. My daughter will enter high school herself next year, which has created a world of new challenges for me as a parent. I provide this background since we all interact with texts based on our own contextual life experiences. Just like a song that may seem sad or happy based on the state of mind we’re in, texts are colored by our experiences. In this case, sections of the book that didn’t resonate with me before seem to be jumping off the page.
Take an early section on studies conducted with students observing college professors. In research conducted by psychologist Nalini Ambady, students were given a few seconds of video showing college professors and asked them to rate their teaching effectiveness. Despite watching only a few seconds of silent video, the split decisions made by students closely aligned with the evaluations given by students who spent the entire semester with the professor. Ambady shared her work in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the article, she talks about the power of “thin slices” of observation and the importance of nonverbal behaviors. In the study, professors who received high ratings were not the most attractive or the ones who looked more scholarly. Instead, the instructors who received high ratings were the ones who were judged more positively on affective dimensions. Maybe the professors smiled a little more. Maybe their body language communicated compassion for students or openness. Maybe their presence communicated a warmth that resonated positively with students. Regardless of the specifics, those affective dimensions came through in the short, thin slices and impacted the students’ blink response.
While some may see Ambady’s study as casting a questionable light on student evaluations in general, we should resist dismissing the study or Gladwell’s book. As I tried to explain to my daughter this morning as she was selecting outfits for school, we’re all being judged by the people we meet. Whether it’s for our dress, our attitudes or for how we interact with others, all of us are being judged as a result of split-second decisions by the people we meet. Thankfully for us as educators, the affective nature of our work is what resonates with our students in the thin slices. If only the blink response by my daughter’s middle school peers was as simple.