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Malcolm Gladwell tells security folks: Don't think too much

Author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, warns security professionals at RSA 2008 not to let too much data cloud their judgment.

SAN FRANCISCO--Malcolm Gladwell had a message for the hordes of security professionals attending RSA 2008 here on Thursday--too much information can impair your judgment.

That's one of the central themes in his bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. "The ability to show judgment, to exercise judgment is just about the most important thing any decision maker can possess," he said in his keynote addresses.

He then gave examples of cases in which overthinking and careful analysis have led to bad consequences.

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell at RSA 2008: 'The ability to show judgment, to exercise judgment is just about the most important thing any decision maker can possess.' Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

Studies have shown, for instance, that emergency room doctors are much better at diagnosing chest pain accurately when they have only four data points (chest pain, instability, fluid in the lungs, and an electrocardiogram) instead of when they are also taking into account factors such as patient age and whether the patient smokes.

Then there's the Getty Museum's famed 14-month evaluation of what was supposed to be a 2,600-year-old Greek kouros statute. Despite art historians and other experts taking one look and declaring it a fake, the museum paid $10 million for it and later learned the mistake.

"There are lessons from the kouros about what goes into the quality of judgment," Gladwell said. Having an unconscious sense can be more important to good judgment than all the painstaking assessment and facts available, he added. "It's central to what it means to be an effective decision maker."

Bringing it home to the security world, Gladwell then spoke of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how members of the intelligence community in Washington, D.C., were so buried in intercepted and decoded Japanese communications that they weren't able to connect the dots. "They couldn't make sense of what was in front of them," he said.

Whereas the journalists, who didn't have all the insider information, had a clearer picture and could anticipate the attack--"because they knew less."

I'll drink to that.