Gladwell tells the story of Vic Braden, one of the world’s top tennis coaches. In tennis, players are given two chances to successfully hit a serve, and missing on the second chance means that they have double-faulted. Braden realized that he always knew when a player was about to double-fault, even before they make contact with the ball. Something in the way tennis players hold themselves, or the way they toss the ball, or the fluidity of their motion triggers something in his unconscious. He thin-slices the information and just knows. Much to his chagrin, Braden is unable to figure how exactly he knows.
Gladwell says that Braden’s frustration is the second critical fact about the thoughts and decisions that originate in the unconscious. Snap judgments and rapid cognition take place behind a lock door, and Braden tried looking inside that room, staying up at night attempting to figure out what it is in the delivery of a tennis serve that stimulates his judgment – but he was unable to do that.
Gladwell gives a hypothetical situation in which a professor asks a student to come see him in his office. In order to get to their office, it is necessary to walk down a long corridor and then sit at the table. In front of the student is a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets, and the professor prompts the student to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It includes a set of words such as “Florida,” “worried,” and “lonely” that primed the adaptive unconscious to think about the state of being old. But the unconscious has taken this suggestion of old age so seriously that by the time the student has finished and walked down the corridor, he acted old and walked slowly.
A psychologist named John Bargh created this test, and he and others have done numerous variations of it, which have shown what goes on behind the locked door of the human unconscious. It is important to note that priming is not like brainwashing. Nonetheless the effects of priming are not insignificant. Two psychologists also carried out a version of this priming test in which black college students taking the Graduate Record Examination were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire. The study revealed that test scores went down dramatically when students were prompted to select their race beforehand.
Gladwell's next example is of a speed dating event set in a Manhattan bar. In the event, each man would have 6 minutes of conversation with each woman, select whom they liked, and if they matched up, they would be notified of the other person’s email address within 24 hours. He cites speed dating as an example of dating distilled to a simple snap judgment, and argues that dating is an instance in which almost everyone is able to thin-slice and make accurate judgments quickly.
Two professors at Columbia, Sheena Iyengar and Raymond Fisman, have discovered that if people are made to explain themselves, something strange happens: when they compared what speed-daters said they want with what they are actually attracted to in the moment, they found that those two things often do not match.
When asking people to explain their thinking, especially thinking that comes from the unconscious, it is necessary to be careful in how to interpret their answers. People learn by example and by direct experience because there are limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction. However there are times when people demand an explanation when an explanation is not really possible, and, doing so can have serious consequences (as Gladwell will further show).
People’s unconscious mind sometimes scans for possibilities and processes every conceivable clue whenever the conscious mind is stumped. When the unconscious finds the answer, it guides them rather silently and definitively, to the solution.
Gladwell focuses here on the inability of people to understand how they think. He picks apart his interviewees' minds, and something of a contradiction arises: Gladwell asserts that humans should not always try to open the locked door that is the adaptive unconscious, but on the other hand, he tries incredibly hard to figure out what exactly is the nature of this part of the brain.
Gladwell says that if humans are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions they make, they need to accept the mysterious nature of snap judgments. They need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why, and to accept that, sometimes, it is better off that way.
Snap judgments are enormously quick and rely on the thinnest slices of experience, but are also unconscious. In this regard, they are useful, but to understand how exactly they work is a frustrating endeavor. The incredibly subtle operations of the unconscious are thus unreliable in this way as well: if one cannot understand how she makes a choice in a high stakes or stressful situation it can be difficult to trust that instinct in the first place.
Having black students fill out the demographic information was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with blacks and academic achievement – the number of questions they got right was cut in half. Such results suggest that what is thought of as free will is a lot more susceptible to outside influences than a person realizes. In this example, one question can undermine students' behavior during the test, which then in turn influences how they think about not only their performance, but also their intelligence. We may infer, then, that the question of ethnicity in the context of standardized tests carries an entire culture's worth of connotations. The effects of thin-slicing and priming are therefore the result of a wealth of experience - which points to Gladwell's idea that the adaptive unconscious can be cultivated. This idea will be explored in the following chapter.