Stanford Bookstore Art Alcove — January 19
In 1980, the classical music orchestras consisted entirely of white men. “Women, it was believed, simply could not play like men,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in his new book Blink. “They didn’t have the strength, the attitude, the resilience for certain kids of pieces. Their lips were different. Their lungs were less powerful. Their hands were smaller. That did not seem like a prejudice. It seemed like a fact.”
But say you thought it was a prejudice, Gladwell tells us. Say we held a conference to discuss this blatant bias, he suggests to the audience here at the Stanford Bookstore. What would we come up with? It would probably be a very depressing conference. The most we could probably say was that we’d just have to wait for all the prejudiced men to die out and be replaced with more openminded people. What else could we do?
But do the men even want to be prejudiced? To us, their behavior looks like rationalizations, as if they’re trying to keep their bias without admitting it. But what if their bias is actually unconscious? After all, we make judgments about musicians at an instinctual level; we don’t think and analyze how they sound. What if their instinct was the thing biased against women, and their conscious self was just trying to figure out why?
At some level, this is even more depressing. At least if the prejudice was intentional and conscious, we could try to reason with these people, convince them to throw out their bigoted ways. But if it’s embedded deep within their brain somewhere, what hope do we have? How can we possibly tinker with our minds internals when we barely even understand them?
The key is not to modify the brain but to modify its inputs. In this case, the answer is simple: blind auditions — put up a screen between the audience and the musician. And in 1980, that’s exactly what happened. And almost immediately, women began being hired left and right. The boy’s club disappeared practically overnight. Nobody had to die, nobody had to be convinced; all that was needed was a tiny change in the environment and people convinced themselves.
Gladwell argues that problems like these, and accompanying solutions, are all around us, but that we don’t see them because we refuse to take our unconscious seriously. We believe in weighted, considered judgments, not instinct or intuition. Even the phrase intuition, he says, is dismissive — he refuses to use it. Unconscious thinking is still thinking, like any other form.
There are lots of ways we can apply it, and Gladwell discusses many in his book. But a few were only in his talk. Teacher evaluations, for example, are overwhelmingly based on charisma and extroversion, so they can’t be given too much weight. (Although Gladwell admits he has something of a personal bias here: his father taught engineering for forty years and got such terrible evaluations that he apparently got into a war with the student associations.) Similarly, academic “job talks”, where professors meet the faculty planning to hire them, are just absurd; they allow irrelevant information to overpower the actual academic work. It’s like ‘hiring NBA players based on how well they crochet’.
He says the research has also made him the biggest proponent of school uniforms, because clothing has major income markings and status messages that can’t help but to bias how kids get treated. And, of course, he’s big on blind selection whenever possible — there’s no reason to meet people you hire when it’s not absolutely necessary.
The problem of course, is that nobody believes the psychological evidence applies to them. Sure, everybody else is biased against short people or black people or women, but they’re not like that, they concentrate on what really matters.
Similarly, nobody believes that it affects them. He once taught a course for a bunch of Princeton freshmen. He asked them to look around at each other and see if they noticed anything they had in common. They didn’t. “You’re all most attractive group of kids I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you think that has anything to do with why you’re here?” Oh no, of course not, they reply. (Gladwell doesn’t go into this, but this one could run pretty deep. It’s not just admissions officers picking cute kids, it’s professors and students and people who run clubs and things in high school too.)
Actually, he says, the only people who are really interested in adopting it are police departments, which makes sense because there it’s really a life-and-death issue, not just keeping people from getting a job.
I read Gladwell’s book today. He finished talking around 1pm and I finished reading this and writing this and going to class at 10pm. It’s a fun, fascinating read, so I recommend it if you’re interested. Two parts particularly stuck out at me — maybe I’ll probably excerpt them here later.
However, I’m also quite sympathetic to Richard Posner’s contrary view.