In 1899, two men had an important meeting. The first man was Harry Daugherty—a lawyer and well-known political “fixer”—and the second was Warren Harding—at the time, a newspaper editor from Marion, Ohio, and a candidate for the Ohio state senate. Daugherty was impressed with Harding’s charisma and handsome face—indeed, he was so impressed that he suggested that Harding would make a great president. On paper, Harding didn’t seem presidential—he wasn’t too smart, he’d had countless affairs with women, and he’d never distinguished himself either as a politician or an editor. When he served in the U.S. Senate, he passed no notable legislation. The only reasons Harding continued to ascend in government were that 1) Daugherty helped him, and 2) he looked like a great, charismatic leader. Eventually, Harding ran for president, was elected, and became—according to most historians—one of the worst presidents in American history.
Warren Harding is, notoriously, one of the worst presidents in American history—an incompetent man who, Gladwell argues, only won the presidency because he dazzled the populace with his face and demeanor and because he had a “master puppeteer,” Harry Daugherty, controlling him. It’s important to notice that for once, Gladwell begins a chapter with an example of a mistaken judgment (i.e., electing Warren Harding) rather than a brilliant insight, setting the tone for the rest of the chapter.
So far, Gladwell has been talking about how thin-slicing can be an effective, accurate way for humans to study the world. But of course, there’s no guarantee that thin-slicing be accurate. Sometimes, people’s “slices” of the world aren’t representative of the truth. The election of Warren Harding is a good example of the “dark side of rapid cognition”: sometimes, in their haste to make a decision, people base their decision on bad evidence. In the case of Harding, American voters assumed that Harding would be a great president because of the intuitive “evidence” that he looked presidential.
In this chapter, Gladwell will clarify and qualify some of the arguments he’s made so far. While continuing to argue that snap judgments are an important part of human nature and a powerful tool for understanding the world, he will acknowledge that at times, snap judgments can be prejudicial and objectively wrong.
Psychologists have studied the way people jump to conclusions using a tool called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. On the IAT, subjects were given a list of words and asked to divide them into two categories: words that reminded them of men or careers, and words that reminded them of women or family. Then, they were asked to perform a similar test, but with one important difference: they were asked to divide a list of words up into two new categories: words that reminded them of women or careers, and words that reminded them or men or family. The second version of the test was much more challenging for test-takers: they took more time to complete the test, and there was a wider range of responses. The reason that people found the second test more difficult to complete is that, stereotypically, people tend to associate women with family, while associating men with work. The point of the IAT is that people tend to have strong preconceptions about race, gender, age, etc.—and these preconceptions influence the speed with which they make snap judgments.
The reason that subjects took longer to complete the second version of the IAT is that this version of the test went against the stereotypical, sexist association of women with domesticity and the home. Thus, the results of the IAT suggest that people use stereotyping as a kind of “mental shortcut”—they use convenient stereotypes about races, genders, etc., to make quick decisions. A further implication of the IAT is that people are more likely to behave in a bigoted way when they’re in a hurry or when they’re in a high-stakes situation: when the pressure is on, people fall back on stereotypes instead of using their rational minds.
In one disturbing version of the IAT, subjects were asked to divide up a series of photographs into two categories: good or European American, and bad or African American. Subjects completed this version of the test far more quickly than the second version, in which the categories were switched to “bad or European American” and “good or African American.” How should we interpret the results of the IAT test? It would be easy to conclude that most Americans are secretly (or not so secretly) racists. But perhaps the truth is subtler: even if people are conscious of believing in the equality of races, their adaptive conscious minds might harbor some racist attitudes. This means that when people interact with people of different races, they might be a little stiffer and less friendly—even if, consciously, they’re not racist at all.
Gladwell uses the theory of the adaptive unconscious to propose an interesting theory of bigotry: even if people don’t subscribe to overtly bigoted beliefs, they can still behave like bigots because of the influence of the adaptive unconscious. The passage also reiterates some of Gladwell’s ideas about free will—the existence of an adaptive unconscious complicates our usual understanding of free will by showing how people can behave in a racist manner even when they’re consciously trying to be fair-minded.
There are many other applications of the idea that the adaptive unconscious can be irrationally prejudiced. In job interviews, it’s been shown, the taller candidate has the higher chance of getting the position, all other things being equal. Indeed, the average American CEO is 1) a man, and 2) about six feet tall, almost three inches above the national male average. Perhaps it’s true that, while the majority of American businesspeople aren’t consciously racist, sexist, or “heightist,” they have an unconscious bias in favor of tall, white men—explaining why a disproportionately large number of CEOs are tall, white men.
It’s often argued that there is a strong, conscious bias against women, people of color, etc. in job interviews. Gladwell doesn’t deny that such a conscious bias exists in some cases, but he suggests that more often people may be unaware of their biases because they’re unaware of their unconscious behavior. This would explain why bigotry can be so difficult to fight—people might not even realize that they’re participated in bigoted behavior.
In the town of Flemington, there’s a Nissan car dealership whose sales director is a man named Bob Golomb. Golomb is a phenomenal salesman—indeed, he sells about twenty Nissans a month, more than twice the rate for an average salesman. In part, Golomb excels at sales because he’s good at thin-slicing. He can assess a person’s interest in buying a car within a couple seconds of meeting them. And yet Golomb doesn’t assess anyone on the basis of their appearance—he claims, “everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car.” So although Golomb sizes people up very quickly, he tries to pay attention to more than just a person’s height, gender, race, or age—in short, he avoids the “Warren Harding” problem.
Golomb’s record as a car salesman is interesting because it shows how thin-slicing and rapid cognition need not be prejudicial. Golomb sizes people up in a few seconds, essentially judging a book by its cover. And yet, Golomb doesn’t (supposedly) let stereotypes cloud his judgment: he avoids the Warren Harding problem (i.e., making the wrong decision about a person based on limited evidence about that person) by considering all the superficial evidence about his clients (their mannerisms, facial cues, etc.). In short, Gladwell argues, there’s a right way and a wrong way to judge a book by its cover.
It turns out that car dealerships suffer because of the Warren Harding problem. One study concluded that, all things held equal, white men receive initial price offers for cars that are about 200 dollars less than the initial prices offered to white women, and nearly a thousand dollars less than the initial prices offered to black men. One might think that the study proves that car dealers are racists: car dealers assume that women and black people are less intelligent than white men, and therefore try harder to sell them an overpriced vehicle. The problem with this hypothesis is that the men and women who participated in the study were college graduates, and certainly didn’t give off the impression of stupidity. So if car dealers are consciously racist, then they are so obliviously racist that they ignore all the evidence about their customers. This seems pretty unlikely, Gladwell says.
Following the evidence Gladwell has already considered, it would seem that car dealers are just as susceptible to errors of the adaptive unconscious as any other person, like the subjects who took the IAT. Most car dealers may not be overtly, consciously racist (in fact, Gladwell argues, it’s pretty unlikely that they all are), but like many people they can allow preconceptions to cloud their judgment. Of course, it’s also worth noting that just because someone is a college graduate it doesn’t mean they appear intelligent on the “snap-judgment” level, so this caveat doesn’t really invalidate claims of racism or sexism (as Gladwell claims).
The most likely explanation for the racism of car dealers is that, unconsciously, they assume that women and black people are less sophisticated than white men. Like the people who voted for Warren Harding, or people who take a long time to finish an IAT, they immediately jump to conclusions about their potential customers because they’ve been unconsciously trained to think this way.
Put in “Blink terminology,” a bad car dealer will thin-slice one small aspect of a person’s appearance, and then extrapolate irrational conclusions from that evidence.
Gladwell asks: Is it possible to fight Warren Harding errors? Unconscious discrimination seems difficult to change, because people don’t realize how pervasive it is. Interestingly, when people take the IAT immediately after looking at pictures of famous and beloved black figures like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, they find it easier to complete the IAT quickly—visual cues can reconfigure the adaptive unconscious to associate races with positive qualities. But there are also some clear limits to how greatly humans can change their own unconscious minds. In the next three chapters of his book, Gladwell will look at three examples of how people can “confront the possibilities of first impressions and snap judgments.”
At the end of this chapter, Gladwell suggests that it’s possible to fight unconscious discrimination—and, in general, that it’s possible to strengthen and train the adaptive unconscious. If it’s possible to condition the unconscious mind to respond negatively to images of black people, it might also be possible to train the unconscious to respond differently. In general, Gladwell is trying to argue that, although the adaptive unconscious is far from perfect, it’s also possible to improve it and use it as a force for good.