Sunday, March 20, 2011


I don't know how you are about women in symphony orchestras. I suppose it's alright for them to be violinists of flautists, but when it comes to the big brass instruments like trombones... well it's a fact that women have smaller lungs than men. Can you envision a woman playing a trombone of a tuba?

That is exactly how German orchestra bosses felt in the 1980s. Then they started holding auditions behind screens and lo and behold, some of the best trombone players were women. I came upon this story in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, which is about the power that our subconscious has over us.

This power is made use of in speed dating, where couple have 5 minutes to meet and greet and then move on to the next victim. It's all about first impressions; couples either hit it off instantly or they do not. Mature reflection might mean it's a disastrous match, but it's surprising how strong that first impression can be.

Most of us would agree that we are not facially prejudiced. Mature reflection tells us that skin color has nothing to do with ability of how pleasant a person is. But tests developed to test our subconscious first impressions indicate that 80% of us are prejudiced and that includes 58% of black people who also prefer white! It may be that our language - black marks, black-hearted, blackguards, dark motives - has conditioned us, but there is no doubt that this instantaneous reaction is there.

You can see it in cop-shootings. A young black American is far more likely to be inadvertently shot by police in America than a young white man. In situations we think of as dangerous we are far more likely to rely on our first impressions than our mature reflections.

You can see it in voter's choices too. Warren Harding is universally regarded as the worst President ever in America. Yet he was tall, handsome, with wonderful hair and a marvelously reassuring voice. He was remarkably handled by his chief of staff and was easily elected. Yet the signs were there. He arranged to be absent for Senatorial debates on the two big issues of his day, women's suffrage and prohibition. But the first impression he gave was marvelous. In the UK, we might say the same about Tony Blair. It is a fact that we tend to elect tall men with regular features and a pleasant manner. We were very lucky to get the short fat and bald Winston Churchill.

Recognizing that we have this subconscious mind making decisions that may be at odds with our mature reflections which should be listen to? Freud had an answer: he said that for simple decisions we should lay out the pros and cons and think about our choice, but that complex decisions were too complicated to think about and that we should rely on our subconscious. You are more likely to spot an Art fraud or laugh at a joke on first impressions than on detailed examination


James said...

Blink, like the other works by Malcom Gladwell (such as The Tipping Point and Outliers) is a great read for anyone who has curiosity about what it means to be human...

If you have not already read Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner I highly recommend them as well...

Terry Hamblin said...

Yes, I've read them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your book reviews Terry,
I'm now reading Blink, very good. Will try James recommendations next.