Published on Wednesday Oct. 9, 2013 in the Ventura County Star
The year is 1987 and Al Campanis is appearing on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel. Coincidentally, America’s favorite pastime is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut.
Campanis knows that Ted doesn’t toss out softballs and his next question will be no exception. Since Campanis is the general manager of the Dodgers and a close friend of Robinson, Koppel questions why there are so few black managers in MLB or why none have been hired at Campanis’ level.
Granted, Campanis was not himself that April evening. In fact, he was, in his words, “wiped out,” but opted to shake off the fatigue because that’s what professionals do.
Fumbling around for suitable language to answer Koppel’s follow-up “to peel it away, a little bit — is there still prejudice in baseball today?” the best Campanis could come up with was admitting that “blacks may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”
In his best-seller “Blink,” (which is shorthand for “rapid cognition”) Malcolm Gladwell describes the experience of a female trombone player named Abbie Conan. She was the hands-down choice of the Munich Philharmonic selection committee.
The auditions, you see, were held behind a screen so the old-school musicians were certainly surprised when Frau Conan emerged, instead of the Herr Conan they had been expecting.
Since her orchestra colleagues wouldn’t overcome their ingrained bias against women, she was demoted without explanation to second trombone.
Conan had no choice but to go to court. In their legal brief, attorneys for the orchestra argued, “The plaintiff does not possess the necessary physical strength to be a leader of the trombone section.” After eight years of testing by experts, she was finally reinstated to first trombone, but she spent the next five years battling all over again — for equal pay.
In “Blink,” Gladwell also examines “The Warren Harding Error” or why we, as voters, keep falling for tall, dark and handsome men.
Most historians concur that Harding was one of the worst presidents in American history, yet his was that name that attained consensus in 1920 as Republican Party bosses gathered in the smoke-filled backrooms of Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel.
Even though Harding chiefly occupied his life with poker, alcohol and women (not necessarily in that order), he continued to rise from one political office to another, but without ever actually distinguishing himself.
His oratory, in fact, had been depicted as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.”
So how did this intellectual pygmy ever attain the presidency? Because to voters, Harding “looked presidential” — decades before TV became a major player in politics.
Deciding that a candidate “looks presidential,” according to “Blink,” is a perfect example of what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing” or “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.”
While thin-slicing occurs both instantaneously and outside of our conscious awareness, it’s best understood as the distillation of years of experience into some sort of split-second reaction that usually proves eerily accurate.
Gladwell provides a case in point with John Gottman, a psychologist from the University of Washington who studied more than 3,000 married couples in his “love lab.” Gottman’s hypothesis involved predicting whether or not a couple would still be together after 15 years.
Gottman would observe a videotape of husband and wife as they discussed a controversial topic — factoring in dozens of nonverbal cues. His predictions proved 90 percent accurate after 15 minutes; 95 percent after one hour.
According to Gladwell, “when our unconscious engages in thin-slicing, what we are doing is an automated, accelerated unconscious version of what Gottman does with his videotapes and equations.”
Yet, not all nonverbal factors proved equal with Gottman. If a husband or wife demonstrated (even briefly) defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism or contempt, Gottman would predict that the marriage was doomed.
So what might have happened had Gottman been asked to view the “Nightline” interview? Would he have zeroed-in on the not-so-hidden contempt leading to Campanis’ ham-handed choice of words?
The press certainly did — they started grilling Campanis about his seemingly black-or-white decision to replace Walter Alston with Tommy Lasorda rather than Jim Gilliam the very next day. The story would grow legs and would end with Campanis relegated to the unemployment line.
Yet, Campanis was a veritable genus at thin-slicing. In fact, his role as general manager demanded it.
The sad thing is that he will always be remembered for his ill-considered words on “Nightline” instead of his 19 years overseeing the Dodgers.
Or as his friend Robinson once observed, “How you played in yesterday’s game is all that counts.”