Gladwell tells the story of the rise of US President Warren G. Harding. When an Ohio lawyer and lobbyist named Harry Daugherty was a newspaper editor, he first saw Harding in a hotel lobby in Ohio, and was instantly overwhelmed by what he saw. There and then, Daugherty sized up Harding, and asked himself would Harding not make a great President?
Harding was not especially intelligent and his reputation as a poker player and womanizer outweighed his political prowess. He advanced steadily in politics only because he was pushed by his wife - as well as the behind the-scenes-scheming of Harry Daugherty. More importantly, as Harding aged, he looked more and more irresistibly distinguished and stately looking. Daugherty had arranged for Harding to speak at the Republican National Convention in 1916, and knew that people only had to see Harding to be convinced of his worthiness for higher office. Daugherty arranged for Harding to run for president, and after a series of arrangements, the Republican Party bosses agreed that out of the 6 candidates running for the party nomination, Harding was the one that they would choose. Harding died of a stroke two years into the presidency, and is often rated as one of the worst presidents in history.
Many people made snap judgments about Harding based upon his physical looks, and jumped to the conclusion that he was a man of courage, intelligence, and integrity. However they did not take a deeper look, and the way he looked carried so many powerful connotations that it stopped the process of normal thinking. Such an error is the dark side of rapid cognition, and is at the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination. Part of what it means to thin-slice and take first impressions seriously is acknowledging understanding that there are circumstances when rapid cognition can be misleading.
A number of psychologists over the past few years have increasingly been employing what is known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) as a way to look more closely at the role these kind of unconscious (or implicit) associations play in beliefs and behaviors. The IAT is based on the principle that people make connections more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in their minds than they do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar. The most famous of the IATs is the Race IAT, which focuses on the test taker’s attitudes towards blacks and whites. More than 80 percent of those who have taken the test have been shown to have pro-white associations (they generally associate white with good and black with bad). Though it does mean that people are necessarily racist, it does show that their attitudes toward things like race or gender operate on two levels: the conscious level (which is what they choose to believe, the values that people use to direct their behavior deliberately), and the unconscious level (automatic associations that arise before there is even time to think – non-deliberate thinking).
Gladwell gives the example of Bob Golomb, a salesman at the Flemington, New Jersey Nissan dealership. He is in his fifties, with thinning hair and glasses. He looks like a serious bank manager and dresses in dark, conservative suits. Since starting in the car business, he has sold on average twenty cars a month – more than double the industry average. It is Golomb’s ability to successfully thin-slice that he owes his success. A successful salesman has to gather a load of information – based on the infinite array of emotions and attitudes that customers express when coming into a dealership – process it, adjust his behavior accordingly, and do so within moments of the first encounter. Much of his success comes from his genial manner, his attentiveness, his ability to make snap judgments about a customer’s needs, but also his active effort to never judge anyone on the basis of his appearance. He assumes that anyone who walks in has the exact same chance of buying a car.
An experiment that emulates Golomb’s methods on a larger scale was carried out in the 1990s in Chicago by a law professor named Ian Ayres. He put together a team of 38 people, black and white, men and women. He made a concerted effort to make them look as similar as possible: average attractiveness, dressed conservatively, and same cover story (college-educated young professionals, banking analysts living in the elegant neighborhood of Streeterville). There were told to walk into different dealerships around the city and should wait to be approached by a salesman and were supposed to point to the lowest priced car. They were instructed to bargain back and forth after the salesman initially presented the price. Ayres wanted to know (others things equal) how does skin color or gender affect the price that a salesman in a car dealership offers?
His study found that if the person was a woman or a person of color, he or she was charged a higher initial price in the negotiations. In other words, there is a temptation to try to spot someone who is more gullible or more susceptible to being haggled (and this is, as Ayres noted, an unconscious decision on the part of the salesman). The salesmen were silently picking up on the most immediate and obvious fact about Ayres’s car buyers (their gender and skin color) and sticking with that judgment despite new and contradictory information. Golomb is aware of how fatal snap judgments such as these can be, so he tries to treat every customer the same regardless of race, gender, or appearance.
One of the indicators of how far Gladwell pushes his argument is simply the fact that Harding became president because he looked senatorial and stately. This seems convincing because of the Machiavellian pusher, Harry Daughterty, that was running Harding's political career. The ability of people to respond based upon physical appearances reveals that such appearances matter much more than one would like to admit, especially because these impressions operate on the level of the unconscious.
Furthermore, the behavior of people like Golomb indicates that most salespeople are prone to the classic Warren Harding error. They see someone, and they let the first impression they have about the person’s appearance cloud every other piece of information they gather in that first instance. They respond according to preconceived notions or a history of perceived patterns, and the decision made at first glance precludes any additional information learned; their unconscious dictates their consciousness, inhibiting further deduction.
Tests like the IAT shows that unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with stated conscious values. It is also a powerful predictor of how a person acts in certain kinds of spontaneous situations. In general, traits like tallness or whiteness more often lead to success because even when it comes to the most important positions, selection decisions are a good deal less rational than people believe.
No doubt that these biases are subtle, and it is difficult to identify a solution. But despite all this, it is not the case that people are helpless in the presence of first impressions. First impressions are generated by experiences and environment – which means that changing the experiences that comprise those impressions, can lead to a change in overall first impressions (or at least counteract them).
Taking rapid cognition seriously and giving heed to the extraordinary power, for good and bad, first impressions play in life requires that people take active steps to manage and control those impressions. But it is also important to note that these unconscious decisions are malleable and can be altered with awareness.