Vic Braden was one of the world’s best tennis coaches. Over the course of his career, Braden discovered that he could always predict when a player would “double-fault” (i.e., fail to make a serve twice in a row). He became so adept at predicting double-faults that he could predict “twenty out of twenty right.” Braden’s ability to predict double-faults is similar to an art historian’s ability to identify a fake Greek statue in the blink of an eye—they use their adaptive unconscious.
The chapter opens with a familiar-sounding example of the powers of the intuitive mind: Vic Braden excels as a tennis coach in part because he’s in touch with his own adaptive unconscious. Braden can thin-slice a tennis match to evaluate, in the blink of an eye, whether or not a player will double-fault.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Vic Braden’s ability to predict double-faults is that he can’t explain how he predicts them. But in general, Gladwell says, people make snap judgments without being able to explain them. Put another way, snap judgments take place behind a “locked door.” When people try to explain their snap judgments, the explanations are never very convincing. Gladwell argues that it’s a mistake to listen to rationality exclusively and ignore intuition altogether. Instead, “We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know.”
Here Gladwell brings up an interesting side effect of thin-slicing: often the person doing the thin-slicing can’t explain in words where the snap judgment came from. Gladwell uses Vic Braden’s example to argue for a seemingly strange conclusion: sometimes, it’s possible to know something without knowing why you know it.
Gladwell describes an experiment in which students were sent into a professor’s office and asked to read a seemingly random series of words, such as “sky the seamless gray is.” When the students left the office, they were found to walk more slowly than they had when entered the office. The list acted as a “priming device”—it contained “trigger words,” such as “gray,” “old,” etc., which tend to inspire people to move slowly. Further studies suggest that people can be “primed” to behave in different ways—words can influence people to be polite, rude, etc.
Gladwell introduces the concept of “priming”—there are certain stimuli (images, words, etc.) that can influence people to change their behavior in measurable ways. “Primers” in the psychological study are carefully controlled, of course, but in real life we are being subconsciously “primed” in different ways by countless stimuli every day.
Priming might sound like brainwashing, but it’s not. Priming can’t force people to perform complicated actions (such as robbing a bank). Nevertheless, priming can inspire some interesting changes in human behavior. In one study, psychologists instructed students to answer twenty questions from the GRE, the graduate school admission test. When students were asked to identify their race in a pretest questionnaire, African American students performed considerably worse. The psychologists argued that negative stereotypes associated with African Americans primed African American test-takers to answer fewer questions correctly. Perhaps part of the reason that there’s an achievement gap on standardized tests is that racial questionnaires prime whites to believe that they’re smart, while priming black test-takers to question their own intelligence.
The concept of priming brings up the idea of free will for the first time, as unconscious thin-slicing might seem to contradict or override conscious decisions and beliefs. For a long time, there has been an “achievement gap” between white and black students: black students lag behind their peers on standardized tests. While there have been many theories about the source of the achievement gap, Blink suggests that one explanation is priming: race questionnaires prime black students to score poorly and white students to score better, thanks to internalized stereotypes that black people are less intelligent than white people.
Gladwell acknowledges that the phenomenon of priming is a little disturbing because it challenges our notions of free will. The concept of free will, it might seem, is an illusion—usually, humans behave a certain way because they’re primed to do so. However, there are some advantages to priming. In a way, the adaptive unconscious acts as a “valet,” adapting the body to environmental cues (such as trigger words) so that the conscious mind can concentrate “on the main problem at hand” instead of wasting excessive time interpreting words.
Based on what we’ve learned so far, it might seem that free will, as it’s traditionally understood, is just an illusion. Human beings do not consciously choose what to do; external influences “nudge” them into certain behaviors. But one advantage of surrendering freedom to the adaptive unconscious is that the adaptive unconscious saves a lot of time: instead of agonizing over every decision (for example, how to climb stairs or eat and read at the same time), the adaptive unconscious acts as a “valet” and decides what to do without disturbing the conscious mind, which can then make bigger decisions (although even then, never wholly free from bias and “priming” from external stimuli).
The adaptive unconscious can be an extremely useful part of the mind. Researchers have discovered a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC), the part of the brain that deals with decision making, sorting through huge amounts of information in the process. People with damaged VPCs struggle to make even basic decisions. When these patients were given the blue/red card test mentioned in the Introduction, they were able to develop a strategy after eighty or so moves, but exhibited no signs of intuitively recognizing the pattern right away. In short, patients with damaged VPCs lacked an adaptive unconscious: they had no way of acting instinctively. In short, Gladwell concludes, sometimes it’s better not to think rationally—humans need an adaptive unconscious “pushing” them in the right direction.
The adaptive unconscious can be time-saving and potentially life-saving; while it’s important to weigh evidence in order to decide the right thing to do, people also need an unconscious impulse pushing them to act. In times of crisis, one can imagine, people without a VPC would be totally unable to decide how to proceed; they wouldn’t be able to run away from danger or protect themselves from an attacker. Put another way, the VPC is necessary because it helped people translate thoughts into actions—the adaptive unconscious helps people act fast and ask questions later.
Speed-dating is a great example of thin-slicing because it involves making judgments about people in a couple minutes. In a typical speed-dating session, participants spend an hour talking to another person for five minutes at a time. At the end of the session, participants check the boxes of the people they liked; if two participants like each other, they’ve provided with each other’s emails. Speed-dating sessions like these are popular because they ask people to make snap judgments. But, Gladwell asks, what if we forced people to explain their snap judgments?
Speed-dating is a particularly good example of snap judgments in action because it’s very difficult to put into words why we want to date specific people and avoid others.
Two psychologists, Iyengar and Raymond Fisman, have conducted experiments with speed-dating in which they ask speed-daters to fill out a questionnaire about what they value in a romantic partner. The speed-daters must fill out this questionnaire four times: the day before the speed-date, the evening after, the month after, and six months after. The strangest thing about the questionnaire is that people change their romantic preferences over the course of the four questionnaires. The evening after the speed-dating event, participants seem to alter their answers to reflect the qualities of the people they liked at the speed-date. But then, over the next six months, participants change their survey responses, so that they gradually revert to the responses they gave the day before the speed-dating event. In short, the people that speed-daters are actually attracted to and the people that speed-daters think they’re attracted to are rarely the same.
The crux of the Fismans’ study is that people’s ideas of a good romantic partner and their real-world preferences in romantic partners are two very different concepts. On paper, a subject might say that she’s attracted to tall, blonde men—even if, during a speed date, she clearly prefers short brunettes. Perhaps the reason that people can be so wrong about their own romantic tastes is that movies, commercials, and ads “prime” them to think that they’re attracted to certain kinds of people, even if they’re really not.
The Fismans’ research reflects a puzzle about human nature: are human beings defined by what they think they want, or what they do? There is, of course, no correct answer to this question. There is always a gap between the conscious mind and the adaptive unconscious—or, put another way, between what people believe they want and what they want instinctively. Much the same is true of tennis players. Braden has interviewed many great tennis pros, but he’s found that tennis pros are bad at explaining their own techniques. The tennis legend Andre Agassi claimed that he “rolled” his racket over the tennis ball before hitting a forehand shot. In fact, Agassi almost never rolled his wrist on a forehand shot—there was a gap between his actions and what he believed his actions to be.
The Fisman’s experiment raises an interesting philosophical question, to which there’s no correct answer: are humans defined by their beliefs or their actions? Gladwell’s discussion of Agassi further reinforces the point that people can be very wrong about themselves—in the same way that speed-daters can misjudge their own romantic preferences, tennis pros can misjudge their own performances very badly. This phenomenon of great athletes being very bad about explaining their talent has been recorded elsewhere as well.
There was a psychological study which asked subjects to solve a puzzle: there were four ropes hung from the ceiling of a room, and participants were asked to find four ways to tie the four ropes together. Most participants could think of three ways to tie the ropes together. But the conductor of the study “primed” the subjects to think of a fourth way to tie the ropes together: by pretending to brush against one of the ropes, the conductor subtly gave his subjects the idea to swing the rope like a pendulum. When asked about how they came up with the idea to swing the rope, few subjects said that the conductor’s hint helped them think of the solution—instead, they told elaborate stories about how dreams, childhood memories, or jokes “inspired” them to solve the puzzle. These subjects weren’t lying—they’d just received a hint so subtle that they couldn’t remember receiving it.
The subjects who participated in this experiment exemplify the hunger for a cohesive rational explanation. Instead of recognizing that they’ve been primed to solve the puzzle, the subjects unconsciously created elaborate rational explanations for how they discovered the solution. Perhaps the explanations for a lot of phenomena are simpler than they’re usually said to be—instinctively, most people refuse to accept that an explanation can be as simple and “inelegant” as the explanation for how the subjects solved the rope puzzle.
There are limits to rational explanations for human behavior. People want to think that there are logical explanations for why they fall in love with certain people, or why they think of solutions to a puzzle. Put another way, “People are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant.” Because of this, they try to invent elaborate rational explanations for their own behavior. Perhaps, Gladwell suggests, it would be better to keep certain human behavior behind a locked door.
Strange though it sounds, there are times when we shouldn’t demand an explanation—or, as Gladwell put it earlier, we should accept that it’s possible to know something without knowing why we know it. In the following chapters, Gladwell will strengthen this thesis by showing how our attempts to explain and rationalize a mental process can interfere with the mental process itself.