Chapter Three of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is titled “The Warren Harding Error.” For those of you who don’t know, Warren Harding was tall and very distinguished looking, what in some modern circles would be called, if I’m not mistaken, a “dreamboat”. Often, he was described as “Roman” looking. He had heavy black hair and bronzed skin. He had a resonant, masculine voice. In short, he looked and sounded presidential. Political forces of the time used these features to take him from a relatively unknown lawyer and lobbyist in Columbus, OH into the Oval Office of the White House. However, unfortunately, Warren Harding was not particularly bright or presidential and has been recognized by many historians as one of the worst presidents in history. Whoops.
This is the backdrop for a chapter that goes on to explain how our snap judgements about people – both positive and negative – can get us into a lot of trouble. Later, the chapter speaks about the height of male CEOs in America. Gladwell polled half the companies on the Fortune 500 list. In 2005, 58% of male CEOs were over six feet tall. General male population over six feet tall? 14.5%. Over 33% of the of the CEOs were 6’2” or taller. General population? 3.9%. Difficult to argue that is pure coincidence, but also easier to accept. Height does not stir the same controversies as race and gender.
This is just one of the many studies Gladwell cites regarding unconscious bias among the general population. Taller men are seen to be more commanding, confident, etc. If you were to poll the boards that appointed these men as CEO, however, and asked them how important height was in their determination, you would have been laughed out of the room. No one in their right mind would consciously say that height is important in the decision making process of choosing someone to run an organization. Right? Somehow, though, it is.
The point of these studies that Malcolm Gladwell cites is not to show that everyone is sexist, or racist, or heightist (if that’s a thing), but more to display that what we consciously say and believe is sometimes at odds with how we act. And this has nothing to do with hypocrisy. It is not a conscious act. Based on your upbringing, your gender, the type of news you consume, etc., your brain has made automatic connections between people, places, and things with positive and negative thoughts or feelings. Harvard has done a number of studies and tests on this, the most interesting of which is the IAT test with a link below if you are interested in trying it:
Having implicit or unconscious feelings or beliefs is about as natural as it gets. It’s part of being human and is in fact an advantage that has evolved over time to help us make decisions in the blink of an eye. Understanding these unconscious leanings, however – and casting them aside when necessary – is the next evolution in human development that can make you a better salesman or saleswoman, better leader, or simply a better person.
*This post contains affiliate links. But the book is still amazing. If you know anything about Malcolm Gladwell, you will agree.