Blink Summary and Analysis of Conclusion: Listening with Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink


Gladwell concludes with a story from the elite world of classical music. Until quite recently, orchestras in Europe were dominated by white men. People believed that women could not play like men, as they did not have the strength, the attitude, or the resilience for certain kinds of pieces. No one paid attention to how auditions were held, because experts believed that they could listen to music played under any circumstances and gauge, instantly and objectively, the quality of the performance. But in recent years, classical musicians began to organize themselves politically, forming unions and fighting for proper contracts, health benefits, protections against arbitrary firing - as well as a push for fairness in hiring. They wanted the audition process to be formalized and objective.

In 1980, trombonist Abbie Conant auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Her experience was unusual, as she auditioned behind a screen. One of the other musicians auditioning was the son of another prominent musician, so the purpose of anonymity was to dissuade nepotism. Conant's audition was exceptional and she was hired - despite the shock at the reveal of her gender. Conant's employment with the orchestra was trying: the music director demoted her unfairly, and she sued. Conant underwent physical tests to refute claims that she lacked the power necessary to play certain pieces. The key piece of evidence for the case to be settled in her favor was the enthusiastic response of the music director to her audition; it was clear that his bias against Conant surfaced only after he knew she was female.

Auditioning behind screens is now more commonplace. Musicians are identified by number rather than name. Screens are placed between the committee and the auditioner, and if the auditioner makes any sort of sound or movement that reveals their gender (e.g. heels on a wooden floor), they were pulled out and given a new number. As these new rules were put in place, orchestras began to hire women. Since screens became commonplace, the number of women playing in the top US orchestras has increased fivefold. The classical music world realize that what they had thought was a pure and powerful first impression - listening to someone play - was in fact corrupted unconsciously.


Gladwell leaves the reader with a case of the negative side of rapid decision-making, with prejudices about women and people of color in classical music clouding the judgments of those with hiring power. The story of screened auditioning is helpful in that it articulates a clear-cut instance of the influence of bias, but also offers an example of how that bias can be addressed - and has been successfully addressed, allowing those who were discriminated against to gain success, while making the quality of performances and the industry much better overall.

In the blind taste test between Coke and Pepsi, without the packaging of the product, many people who profess to prefer Coke opted for Pepsi. Of course human beings are much more complex, but, in essence, taking the "packaging" of gender or race identity out of the equation in the audition process led to more parity in hiring in the classical music world. The music director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, through his deeds and actions following Conant's hiring, proved himself to be biased - and dangerously so. Stripped of his ability to thin-slice by sight, the music director applied thin-slicing to the audition itself, culminating in the hiring of the best musician for the job.

What makes this episode crucial to the book is that it offers a clear example of how to address shortcomings in rapid cognition. The classical music world was confronted with its prejudices, and it responded - not by changing the thought process of each person with hiring capability, which would have been impossible, but by controlling what they could - the environment in which these snap judgments were made.

However, manipulating the environment is not an option for the vast majority of experiences in which we must make rapid decisions. So then, can we only trust our instincts if our instincts are trustworthy? If we examine our gut reactions for any inherent or implicit biases, are we then still utilizing rapid deduction? Is thin-slicing, then, just an initial and, depending on the context, minor part of the process of decision-making? Ultimately, Blink offers anecdotes that elucidate conflicting arguments for the usefulness of thin-slicing.