Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Transactional Distance

I've been thinking about the intrinsic limitations of e-mail recently as a form of communication. Part of what got me thinking was reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink ( - see the Rapid Cognition blog entry). That, in turn, got me thinking about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and reading parts of my books on the subject. This led to noticing just how easily friends and colleagues misinterpret e-mail communication. I am, no doubt, susceptible to the same process which, in NLP terms, is called filtering; namely, deleting, distorting, and generalizing the messages received by the senses in creating my subjective experiences. Again, as they say in NLP, "the map is not the territory"; or, "we all create our own experiences."

Filtering will happen automically, no matter what the senses perceive. One would think, therefore, that the more sensory information, the better. If I can see it, can hear it, can smell it, can taste it, and can feel it...well, that should be better than merely seeing it. Certainly in the case of e-mail, one can make a strong case that the limitations of e-mail as a form of communication are owing to the lack of non-verbal information, to what some distance-education theorists call "transactional distance." In e-mail, we can't hear the tone of voice; we can't see the accompanying body language; we can't feel the blood pressure of our correspondent rising, and so on. We are, by virtue of depending on the written word alone, transactionally distant from the person with whom we are trying to communicate.

In e-mail, emoticons have been a valiant attempt to diminish the distance between correspondents. Even better, VOIP (voice over internet protocol) allows communication over the Internet in real-time by using headphones and microphones just like a telephone conversation. Webcams also help by providing a measure of real-time "body language".

All of this brings me back to rapid cognition once again. Part of Gladwell's message in Blink was that sometimes rapid cognition benefits from limiting the sources of information. Sometimes, it seems that we make better decisions when we have less information. ER doctors dealing with possible heart attack victims do a better job of diagnosis when they don't do a full patient history, but instead focus on just four specific pieces of information about heart health. Classical music auditions are more equitable when the musicians are "screened" from the "eyes" of those auditing their performance. There are many more examples in Gladwell's book.

So, why doesn't e-mail benefit us by providing less information? Probably because we often get the wrong information provided. When e-mail deals with issues with emotional side effects (most of the time, I guess), we don't get the information we need. The context, in other words, is wrong. The transactional distance has been increased. On the other hand, when dealing with issues less emotionally explosive, e-mail is perfectly suitable to the task at hand, precisely because it limits exposure to irrelevant contexts. In those situations, it is only distracting to hear a voice or to see a person's image in a webcam.

So, if all of this is true, here's my homework: prepare a series of questions, a kind of checklist, to help me determine when e-mail will work and when it encourages misinformation. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Blink: Rapid Cognition

Today, my wife and I attended a University of Waterloo alumni event held at CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation) in which Malcolm Gladwell spoke to the roughly 400 persons attending about his newest book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He chose to use a story from his book about Abbie Conant, a trombonist who was hired by the ultra-conservative Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980 after winning a "screened" audition in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Gladwell used the story to summarize lessons learned in writing his book and to emphasize to the attentive audience how incredibly important are the decisions made in the "blink" of an eye.

Afterwards, he entertained questions from the audience. Although I didn't ask any questions, there were many that occurred to me. For example, one of the lessons of the book is that rapid cognition needs to be taken seriously, not just by psychologists, but by anyone interested in how we make decisions. Furthermore, he argues that if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition itself. So, one of the issues for anyone interested in making better decisions or in helping others to make better decisions is to understand and identify when decisions are best made using rapid cognition.

For me, as an information technology manager, I have often been curious about how our decision making either seems to require more information or becomes confused by too much information. Gladwell states unequivocally that situations involving slow, deliberative analysis benefit from careful analysis and gathering of as much information as possible. But in those situations where rapid decision-making occurs, too much information is worse than too little information. Clearly then, in order to manage information and improve decision-making, we need to be identify what kind of decision needs to be made and whether it would benefit from rapid cognition. But how to we do that?

Some situations are fairly obvious. Life-or-death situations in war or policing or emergency medical care benefit from rapid-cognition-type decisions. But in everyday life, it is not so clear cut as to when we should limit information or gather more information. In addition, it seems that Gladwell's research demonstrates that controlling the environment for rapid cognition requires the input of experts who have already done extensive, painstaking, research and then applied the expertise gained to determine what information is extraneous and what is essential during a rapid cognition event. Although Gladwell didn't speculate on how this occurs, in my view it's almost as if the human mind automatically and naturally limits information when a quick decision needs to be made. Sometimes that natural limiting capacity results in good decisions, sometimes in bad decisions.

Gladwell's book, then, is really just a teaser. It is important in confirming our intuition that not all decisions benefit from more information. It is a significant reminder that we all make incredibly important decisions everyday in the blink of an eye anyway, so why not take such events seriously. But it begs for a follow up about application. His concluding chapter really doesn't deliver more than another story, another illustration.

Conant was hired, even though she was a woman and women were not believed to be capable of the level of musicianship required in orchestras. But she then suffered through fifteen years of sabotage and disbelief in the Munich Orchestra about her obviously superior abilities. Screened auditions did dramatically change the composition of orchestras throughout the world by bringing in many more women and people of non-European, white, male origins. And it does illustrate wonderfully well how limiting information and controlling the environment in which rapid decision-making occurs can change the world for the better. Yet, it demands very serious study of everyday life and the application of the lessons of Blink. I hope Gladwell does so, otherwise people like me might have to take the initiative ourselves!

Note: I won the door prize of a University of Waterloo rugby shirt (Barbarian - very cool!). My fellow chorister, Mark Haslett, introduced Malcolm Gladwell to the audience.