Excerpt: 'Bounce'

Bounce
Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success
By Matthew Syed
Hardcover, 320 pages
Harper
List price: $25.99

In the 1990s Gary Klein, a New York psychologist, embarked on a major study funded by the U.S. military to examine decision making in the real world. He was looking to test the theory that expert decision makers wield logical methods, examining the various alternatives before selecting the optimal choice. Klein’s problem was that the longer the study went on, the less the theory bore any relation to the way decisions are made in practice.

The curious thing was not that top decision makers — medical professionals, firefighters, military commanders, and so on — were making choices based on unexpected factors; it was that they did not seem to be making choices at all. They were contemplating the situation for a few moments and then just deciding, without considering the alternatives. Some were unable even to explain how they happened upon the course of action they actually took.

Here is an example of a fire lieutenant making a lifesaving decision, as recounted in Klein’s book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions:

There is a simple house fire in a one-story house in a residential neighborhood. The fire is in the back, in the kitchen area. The lieutenant leads his hose crew into the building, to the back, to spray water on the fire, but the fire just roars back at them.

"Odd," he thinks. The water should have more of an impact. They try dousing it again, and get the same results. They retreat a few steps to regroup.

Then the lieutenant starts to feel as if something is not right. He doesn’t have any clues; he just doesn’t feel right about being in that house, so he orders his men out of the building — a perfectly standard building with nothing out of the ordinary.

As soon as his men leave the building, the floor where they had been standing collapses. Had they still been inside, they would have plunged into the fire below.

Later, when Klein asked the commander how he knew something was about to go terribly wrong, the commander put it down to "extrasensory perception." That was the only thing he could come up with to explain a lifesaving decision, and others like it, that seemed to emerge from nowhere. Klein was too much of a rationalist to accept the idea of ESP, but by now he had begun to notice equally perplexing abilities among other expert decision makers. They seemed to know what to do, often without knowing why.

One of Klein’s coworkers, who had spent many weeks studying the neonatal unit of a large hospital, had found that experienced nurses were able to diagnose an infection in babies even when, to outsiders, there seemed to be no visible clues. This was not merely remarkable, but often lifesaving: infants at an early stage of life can quickly succumb to infections if they are not detected early.

Perhaps the most curious thing of all was that the hospital would perform tests to check the accuracy of the nurse’s diagnosis, and occasionally these would come back negative. But sure enough, by the next day, the tests would come back positive — the nurse had been right all along. To the researcher this seemed almost magical, and even the nurses were baffled by it, attributing it to "intuition" or a "special sense."

What was going on? Can the insights gleaned from sport help to unlock the mystery?

Think back to Desmond Douglas, the Speedy Gonzales of English table tennis, who could anticipate the movement of a table tennis ball by chunking the pattern of his opponent’s movement before the ball was even hit. Think, also, of how other top performers in sport seem to know what to do in advance of everyone else, creating the so-called time paradox where they are able to play in an unhurried way even under severe time constraints.

Klein came to realize that expert firefighters are relying on precisely the same mental processes. They are able to confront a burning building and almost instantly place it within the context of a rich, detailed, and elaborate conceptual scheme derived from years of experience. They can chunk the visual properties of the scene and comprehend its complex dynamics, often without understanding how. The fire commander called it "extrasensory perception"; Douglas, you will remember, cited his "sixth sense."

We can get an idea of what is going on by digging down into the mind of the fire commander who pulled his men out moments before the floor caved in. He did not suspect that the seat of the fire was in the basement, because he did not even know the house had a basement. But he was already curious, based upon his extensive experience, as to why the fire was not reacting as expected. The living room was hotter than it should have been for such a small fire, and it was altogether too quiet. His expectations were breached, but in ways so subtle he was not consciously aware of why.

Only with hindsight — and after hours of conversation with Klein — was it possible to piece together the sequence of events. The reason the fire was not quenched by his crew’s attack was because its base was underneath them, and not in the kitchen; the reason it was hotter than expected was because it was rising from many feet below; the reason it was quiet is because the floor was muffling the noise. All this — and many more interconnecting variables of indescribable complexity — was responsible for the fire commander taking the lifesaving decision to pull his men.

As Klein puts it, "The commander’s experience had provided him with a firm set of patterns. He was accustomed to sizing up the situation by having it match one of these patterns. He may not have been able to articulate the patterns or describe their features, but he was relying on the pattern-matching process to let him feel comfortable that he had the situation scoped out."

A set of painstaking interviews with the nurses in the neonatal unit provided the same insights. In essence, the nurses were relying on their deep knowledge of perceptual cues, each one subtle, but which together signaled an infant in distress. The same mental process is used by pilots, military generals, detectives, you name it. It is also true, as we have seen, of top athletes. What they all have in common is long experience and deep knowledge.

Excerpted from Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed. Copyright 2010 by Matthew Syed. Excerpted by permission of Harper.

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