Gladwell describes the life of Ethiopian-American rock musician Kenna. In his mid-teens, Kenna began singing and playing musical instruments. He loved reading as well, and his songs were different and hard to classify. His demo landed in the hands of a talent scout for a record company, and through that connection, his record found its way to the co-president of Atlantic Records, Craig Kellman, who was blown away and immediately brought him to New York. Producers were also entranced by Kenna’s music, as was the manager of U2 (the world’s biggest rock band). People who truly know music (people who run record labels, go to clubs, and know the business well) really loved Kenna. When his record was being considered by music industry executives, it was given to an outside market-research firm – in order to be successful, an artist has to get played on the radio, and radio stations will only play a small number of songs that have been proven by market research to appeal to their audience.
Market firms post new songs on the Internet, and listeners vote on them. But the people listening to Kenna’s music did not like it, and to get on the radio there needed to be proof that the public would respond favorably. Gut feelings, it turns out, about what the public wants are too mysterious and too iffy. Getting to the bottom of the question of how good Kenna really is requires, in Gladwell’s perspective, a more searching exploration of the intricacies of our snap judgments.
Gladwell provides a parallel scenario: in the 1980s, Coca-Cola was losing its lead as the dominant soft drink in the world to Pepsi. The corporation conducted blind taste tests, giving tasters unidentifiable cups with Pepsi and Coca-Cola and asking which one they preferred. Pepsi won overwhelmingly in these tests, and so Coca-Cola released a newly formulated soft drink called New Coke – which failed miserably. Coke was in a crisis. Plummeting sales and protests by outraged customers forced Coke to bring back the original formula, packaged as Classic Coke. Despite this setback, the seemingly inevitable rise of Pepsi never materialized either. Coke has remained the number soft drink in the world.
Gladwell attributes Coke’s success to sensation transference – when people assess something they might buy in a supermarket or a department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself. Clever and attractive packaging greatly influences the success of a product, but the taste of the product nonetheless matters a great deal. When people put something in their mouth and in a split second decide whether it tastes good or not, they are reacting not only to the evidence from their taste buds but also to the evidence of their eyes, memories, and imaginations – it would be foolish of a company to focus on one dimension and ignore the other. This logic helps explain why the reactions of music industry executives and that of the public were very different: judging Kenna without the context and additional information (as when music buyers listened to the song online vs. live) is similar to making people choose between Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test.
Gladwell brings in the example of the Aeron chair to further clarify and contextualize Kenna’s dilemma: the chair was the invention of two well-known industrial designers, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, who were doing contract work for Herman Miller. They had made chairs before that sold well, but they wanted to make something more ergonomic. In a typical chair, there is a simple hinge that allows a person to lean back – but the problem is that the chair pivots in a different way from how the hips pivot, and so can pull shirts out of pants and put undue stress on the back. On the Aeron, the seat pan and the back of the chair moved independently through a complex mechanism.
The design team at Herman Miller created a chair that was the exact opposite of what most people looked for a chair in an aesthetic context: it did not look senatorial, with thick cushions and a high imposing back. It was a slender, transparent, and made of black plastic. In 1992, Herman Miller started "use testing" – they took prototypes of the Aeron to local companies in Michigan and had people sit in them for at least half a day, and then rate them. At first, the ratings for the chair’s comfort were low, but as the company tinkered with the design, and got people to overcome their qualms, the scores began to inch up. But the aesthetic scores were abysmal.
When they launched the chair officially, the market results were not promising. With the Aeron, the effort to collect consumers’ first impressions failed because the people reporting their first impressions misinterpreted their own feelings. The issue with the Aeron chair was that office chairs, in people’s minds, had a certain aesthetic. The Aeron chair did not fit that aesthetic. The Aeron was being rated based on what was familiar, and anything unusual is often categorized as wrong. Market research was hopeful for the Aeron chair, and companies like market research because it provides certainty. But the truth, Gladwell argues, is that for the most important decisions, there can be no certainty.
Gladwell recounts an interaction over lunch with two women who run a food tasting company, Gail Vance Civille and Judy Heylmun. They do not simply taste food; they think and dream about it. They are able to make the minutest distinctions and tell exactly what ingredients are in any given dish. They also can instantaneously spot “rework" - the practice in some food factories of recycling leftover or rejected ingredients from one product batch into another product batch. Heylmun is able to tell not only what factory a cookie, for example, comes from but also what rework the factory was using in its production.
Gladwell returns to Kenna – after years of inconsistent success, Columbia Records signed him. His first album did not really take off, but he got a few appearances on television talk shows. The story is similar to that of the food tasters and the Aeron chair: the people who had a way to make sense of their first impressions, the vocabulary to capture them, and the experience to understand them loved Kenna. However the world of radio is not as savvy as the world of food tasters or Herman Miller, and so they prefer a system that cannot measure what it promises to measure.
Non-experts come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why they might prefer or not prefer something, and then they adjust their actual preferences to be in congruence with that plausible-sounding reason. Unconscious reactions come from an inaccessible locked room, and people are not able to examine the mechanisms at work. However, Gladwell argues, with experience people become experts at using their behavior and their training to interpret and understand what lies behind snap judgments and first impressions.
All experts do this, either formally or informally. This is not to say that when people are outside their areas of expertise, their reactions are undoubtedly wrong. Rather it is simply the case that they are shallow, hard to explain, easily disrupted, and not grounded in real understanding. This is the most important lesson that Gladwell wants the readers to take away from the Kenna example: the first impressions of experts are different. When a person becomes an expert in something, his or her tastes grow more esoteric and complex. It is really only experts who are able to reliably account for their reactions.
Gladwell's argument takes another unexpected turn here: before, he said that everyone has the ability to develop the sense of thin-slicing. However, as Richard Posner points out in his review of Blink, the ability of an expert to make a snap judgment is the result of a deliberative process that becomes unconscious through habituation.
Gladwell says not to focus too much on the details, but the degree to which he describes the thought processes and actions of Civille and Heylmun indicates otherwise. The detailed insight that Gladwell provides almost disproves his point of not going into too much detail. It almost becomes a source of confusion for the reader, and it comes to a point where the reader might begin to realize that the studies that Gladwell is using have no critique attached to them.
In other words, there is no indication of Gladwell attempting to cite or provide criticisms of the evidence that he employs. So the reader falls into the bias that Gladwell has as well. There seems to be a lack of alternative reasoning in Gladwell.