Is there anyone in the world who isn’t in a terrible rush to get somewhere, do something, see someone? We pay a price for the mad hurry that is life today, from mild jitters to debilitating stress to the inability to remember or focus on much of anything.
Frank Partnoy, a close student of things financial (Infectious Greed, 2003), turns his attention to the pace of life, and its psychological and social implications in his Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.
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Dogs that don’t eat the biscuits that are placed on their noses, kids who delay gratification, adults who tame their reactions to stress and worry—your book covers a lot of ground. Please tell us a bit about it and about how Wait came about.
I had just finished The Match King during fall 2008, and I was considering writing a book about the ongoing financial crisis when I heard that Lehman Brothers had designed a decision-making course for their top managers back in 2005. I interviewed a few former Lehman executives and discovered that the speakers for the course had included not only preeminent Harvard psychologists but also Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink. Lehman’s president, Joe Gregory, apparently was a huge fan of snap intuition and gut instinct.
Right after this supposedly cutting-edge course, Lehman’s executives had rushed back to their corporate headquarters in Times Square and made some of the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets, ultimately bankrupting the firm. So I thought: that’s pretty interesting.
I had worked on Morgan Stanley’s trading desk during the 1990s and saw how gut reactions were often disastrous. Since then, I’d worked on various financial reform issues and saw regulators also make terrible quick decisions, especially during crises. I’d taught decision-making in my courses for more than a decade and knew there weren’t books that explored the role of delay in decisions across the disciplines of psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience. I’d also been a huge procrastinator since childhood. So I decided to explore recent research on delay. A year later, I had a 5,000-word book proposal and, most important, a deadline.
“Top batsmen excel not because their reaction times are fast, but because their fast physical reaction times enable them to go slow.” This seems a little counterintuitive. Please tell us a little about the “wait” dimension in sports? Are there any current MLB players, say, who exemplify the point?
Watch Derek Jeter. His swing is short and compact, he completes it faster than most players. Because he can move his bat so quickly, he frees up a few extra milliseconds to observe the speed and trajectory of the ball before he must swing or not. This extraordinary skill is what top hitting coaches call “letting the ball travel.” Jeter’s delay is entirely unconscious, it takes a baseball just half a second to arrive at the plate and human beings cannot consciously process information that quickly. Yet studies confirm based on high-speed photography that the best hitters wait a tiny bit longer before they start a swing. If a player is 50 milliseconds slower than Jeter, just a fraction of the time it takes an eye to blink, he has no chance.
Your note that because novices are often likely to make the wrong move, “the right move is often no move at all,” sounds as if it could be a recipe for inaction. As you describe it, though, nonaction is a decided virtue beyond the Buddhist sense of the phrase. Are there a couple of instances in history where not acting would have improved things?
It started with Adam and Eve going for the apple. We all know from responding too quickly to email or provocations from colleagues or family that we often are better off not making any move. In historical terms, military inaction has been similarly beneficial, and military historians often cite delay or inaction as central to a winning strategy. What if Napoleon hadn’t invaded Russia? Or if Confederate forces hadn’t attacked Fort Sumter? Or if any recent terrorist had decided not to act? Inaction arguably would have made the world a better and safer place in each case, as it did when the U.S. government chose not to attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sometimes we are forced to act, and then we must. But if we have a choice and we aren’t experts, not deciding can be the best decision.
It’s good to see you quoting Douglas Adams’ maxim “don’t panic” approvingly. Yet, with all that there is to panic about these days, is this realistic? Why not panic?
When we panic, we react unnaturally. Our sense of time becomes warped, and we cannot tap our innate expertise. But if we are comfortable in a situation, we likely will react naturally and appropriately, even during extreme crisis. Firefighters who arrive at a scene don’t panic. They don’t even make decisions. They simply know what to do.
The researcher Gary Klein recommends that we prepare for situations in which we might panic by doing a “premortem”: imagine a future decision has failed and ask why. But if we haven’t done that, and we end up in a panicked situation, we should do our best to step back and take some time to assess. Actors and comedians are especially prone to panic. The best ones don’t rush—they wait as long as they can before delivering a line.
How do you see your book fitting into the popular scientific literature? Put another way, if James Gleick’s Faster or Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is on one side of it, what’s on the other?
I’d be thrilled to see my book next to anything by James Gleick or Malcolm Gladwell. As a professor, I’d also be honored to see popular-science books written by academics nearby, especially books in behavioral economics and psychology: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and, of course, Freakonomics. I hope Wait will still be on the electronic or physical shelf for future generations, who will have to navigate an unimaginably faster-paced world than the one we confront now.
Given the nature of things today, despite your wise counsel to slow things down, I’m betting your publisher is in a hurry to get your next book going. What are you working on?
I’m in no hurry. It can take me a year or longer after I finish writing a book before I am able to decide on a new one. In recent months I’ve considered: a narrative about a criminal trial, a “big think” about how technology is changing the nature of knowledge, a travelogue on the American obsession with football, and a policy book about the future of banking.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a bunch of academic projects to finish, and two co-authored casebooks that will need revising. So I’m going to procrastinate starting my next book as long as I possibly can. I’ll make a better decision about the topic that way.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).