In the 1980s there was a professional trombone player named Abbie Conant. She received an invitation to audition for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra—the invitation was addressed to “Herr Abbie Conant” (i.e., a man). Abbie participated in an initial blind audition for the orchestra (i.e., an audition where the judges sat behind a screen, couldn’t see the performer, and didn’t know her name), and impressed the orchestra’s music director, Sergiu Celibidache. But when Abbie showed up to the final, non-blind round of audition, the orchestra’s music director, Celibidache, was appalled—he’d been expecting a man. Abbie, a highly talented musician, ended up being offered a position with the orchestra, despite Celibidache’s objections. After a year of playing with the orchestra, Abbie was surprised to learn that she’d been demoted from first to second trombone—as Celibidache told her, “We need a man.” Abbie was understandably furious, and sued the Munich Philharmonic. Abbie won her case and was reinstated as first trombone because she had proof that Celibidache respected her talent—during the initial blind auditions (i.e., before he knew Abbie was a woman), Celibidache had been highly impressed with Abbie’s performance. In short, Abbie was “saved by a screen.”
In the conclusion to Blink, Gladwell studies the importance of blind auditioning in classic music (that is, listening to the musician’s music without seeing the person playing). Abbie’s experiences with the Munich Philharmonic suggest that even trained music professionals like Celibidache can allow their prejudices and biases to cloud their judgment—without even knowing what they’re doing. The “screen” that separates performers from selection panels is a kind of insurance against prejudice and bigotry—in Abbie’s case, for example, the screen helped her win her court case by proving that Celibidache, contrary to what he claimed, did think that Abbie was a talented musician.
For hundreds of years, European classical music was written and performed by men, and no one else. It was believed that women were too delicate and timid to compose or perform truly sublime music. In the last few decades, however, there’s been a revolution in classical music: women have begun to perform in the world’s greatest orchestras. One reason that this revolution occurred, Gladwell argues, is that orchestras began to use blind auditions to select their performers. The advantages of blind auditions are obvious: in the classical music world, there are very strong negative stereotypes associated with women, and eliminating these stereotypes through a screening process allows female musicians to be judged purely on the merits of their music.
Traditionally, classical music has been among the most sexist industries—the “common wisdom” was that men, and men alone, possessed the genius, the passion, and the creativity to perform great music. The aftermath of the introduction of blind auditions proves that such an idea is bigoted nonsense—men and women have the potential to be equally proficient at music, provided that they perform for an audience that isn’t automatically prejudiced against them.
Perhaps the question we should ask isn’t, “Why did the classic music world remain sexist for so long?” but rather, “Why were musicians so oblivious to their own sexism?” The answer, Gladwell has shown, is that people can be oblivious to their own powers of rapid cognition: they can’t explain where their first impressions come from. However, “by changing the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, we can control rapid cognition.” The introduction of blind auditions is a proven example of how seemingly trivial environmental changes can control rapid cognition and eliminate troubling biases.
Gladwell assumes that classical musicians were unaware of their own sexism (much as the people who took the IAT were unaware of the extent of their own racism). Perhaps Gladwell is being too kind—certainly, there have been many great classical musicians who were consciously, overtly, and proudly misogynistic. However, Gladwell shows how even tolerant men in the classical music world might allow their unconscious biases to control their behavior.
Gladwell concludes with one final example of the power of rapid cognition. Several years ago, a musician named Julie Landsman auditioned to play the French horn at the New York Metropolitan Opera. During her blind audition, Landsman played brilliantly, easily winning a position as first horn. The panel that selected Landsman for the Met reported knowing that Landsman was the best candidate for the job after listening to her play for just a few seconds—a perfect example of rapid cognition. Had they seen Landsman play, however, their rapid cognition might have led them to judge her performance more harshly. In short, blind auditions created “the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds”: the panel saw Landsman “for who she truly was.”
Julie Landsman’s success as a musician demonstrates the power of rapid cognition at its best. There is nothing inherently good or bad about rapid cognition—sometimes it can lead to incredible insights, and sometimes it leads to horrific mistakes. In Blink, Gladwell has argued that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water”; i.e., we shouldn’t discount the importance of rapid cognition simply because rapid cognition is sometimes prejudicial and biased. With the proper planning, people can use rapid cognition to counteract prejudice and bias. During Julie Landsman’s blind audition, for example, the selection panel used rapid cognition to immediately and confidently judge Landsman to be a brilliant musician.