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Thin Slices
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Twenty years ago, my wife and I visited the classical Getty Villa in Malibu. Guides met us at the top of a walk up the hillside through trees and described the facilities: a breath-takingly beautiful and precise knock-off of a palace unearthed at Herculaneum.

Inside was a statue we'd seen in recently in Newsweek and the New York Times. After a year of rigorous study and analysis, the Getty had paid $10 million for it. The seven-foot tall statue was a kouros.

A kouros is a statue of a standing nude youth that did not represent any one individual youth but the idea of youth. Used in Archaic Greece as both a dedication to the gods in sanctuaries and as a grave monument, the standard kouros stood with his left foot forward, arms at his sides, looking straight ahead. Carved in from four sides, the statue retained the general shape of the marble block. Archaic Greek sculptors reduced human anatomy and musculature in these statues to decorative patterning on the surface of the marble.
Oddly, the Getty attributes the statue to:
Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery
Before buying the kouros, the museum had spent 14 months authenticating the statue. This included analyzing a core sample with an electron microscope, mass spectromer, and X-ray flurorescence. Geologist Stanly Margolis found that the statue was carved from dolmite marble from the ancient Cape Bathy quarry on the island of Thasos. The surface was covered by a thin layer of calcite, which would have taken centuries to form. Margolis assured museum officials that the kouros was the real deal.

None the less, when Tom Hoving and other experts first glimpsed the statue, they instantly knew it was counterfeit. In time, dozens of experts declared the kouros a fake; most of them did so immediately and by gut feel. The experts couldn't tell where their insights came from. The museum curator said:
I always considered scientific opinion more objective than esthetic judgments. Now I realize I was wrong.
Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking, arrived today, and I'm a couple of chapters into it. It begins with the kouros story. I think this book will change a lot of notions about training.

Gladwell's examples prove that we make a lot of decisions unconsciously. The thinking is done behind the shroud of awareness by what Gladwell calls adaptive consciousness and I have called the boys in the back room. Another example:
A person watching a silent two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the teacher's class for an entire semester.
In Gladwell's second chapter, we're introduced to psychologists who can predict whether a marriage will last by watching a mere three minutes of video of the couple talking. Also, people can tell more about a person by looking at their room than by talking with them!

This is pattern recognition. Gladwell calls the bits that the boys in the back room weave into patterns thin slices. The authenticators at the Getty poured through mountains of content, only to come to an incorrect conclusion. The experts experienced a gestalt reaction to a few points being out of context.

I know of but one group of designers dedicated to refining people's ability to subconsciously connect the dots to grok what's important and what's not. I'll continue sharing observations from the book as I dig through it.


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