The Storytelling Problem

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The Storytelling Problem


On a brisk, spring evening not long ago, two dozen men and women gathered in the back room of a Manhattan bar to engage in peculiar ritual known as “speed dating.” They were all young professionals in their twenties, a smattering of Wall Street types and medical students and school teachers, as well as four women who came, in a group, from the nearby headquarters of Anne Klein Jewelry. The women were all in red or black sweaters, and jeans or dark pants. The men, with one or two exceptions, were all wearing the Manhattan working uniform of a dark blue shirt and black slacks. At the beginning they mingled awkwardly, clutching their drinks, and then the coordinator of the evening, a tall, striking woman named Kailynn, called the group to order.
     Each man would have, she said, six minutes of conversation with each woman. The women would sit, for the duration of the evening, against the wall, along the long, low couch that ringed the room, and the men would rotate from woman to woman, moving to the next chair whenever Kailynn rang a bell, signaling that the six minutes were over. The dates were each given a badge, a number, and a short form, with the instructions that if they liked someone after the six minutes, they should check the box next to his or her number, and if this person whose box they checked also checked their box, both would be notified of each other’s email address within twenty-four hours. There was a murmur of anticipation. Several people made a last minute dash for the bathroom. Kailynn rang her bell. The men and women took their places, and immediately a surge of conversation filled the room. The men’s chairs were far enough away from the women’s couches that the two parties had to lean forward, their elbows on their knees. One or two of the women were actually bouncing up and down on the sofa cushions. The man talking to the woman at table number three spilled his beer on her lap. At table one, a brunette named Melissa, desperate to get her date to talk, asked him, in quick succession, “If you had three wishes, what would they be? Do you have siblings? Do you live alone?” At another table, a very young and blonde man named David asked his date why she signed up for the evening. “I’m 26,” she replied. “A lot of my friends have boyfriends that they have known since high school, and they are engaged or already married, and I’m still single and I’m like — ahhhh.” Kailynn stood to the side, by the bar that ran across one wall of the room. “If you are enjoying the connection, it goes quickly. If you aren’t, it’s the longest six minutes of your life,” she said, as she watched the couples square off. “Sometimes strange things happen. I’ll never forget. Back in

What speed-daters say they want and what they are actually attracted to in a moment don’t match.

November, there was a guy from Queens who showed up with a dozen red roses, and he gave one to every girl he spoke to. He had a suit on.” She gave a half smile. “He was ready to go.”
     Speed-dating has become enormously popular around the world over the last few years, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s the distillation of dating to a simple snap judgment. Everyone who sat down at one of those tables was trying to answer a very simple question: do I want to see this person again? And for that, we don’t need an entire evening. We really only need a few minutes. Velma, for instance, one of the four Anne Klein women, said that she had picked none of the men, and that she made up her mind about each of them right away. “They lost me at hello,” she said, rolling her eyes. Ron, who worked as a financial analyst at an investment bank, picked two of the women, one of whom he settled on after about a minute and a half of conversation and one of whom, Lillian at table two, he decided on the instant he sat down across from her. “Her tongue was pierced!” he said, admiringly. “You come to a place like this and you expect a bunch of lawyers. But she was a whole different story.” Lillian liked Ron too. “You know why?” she said. “He’s from Louisiana. I loved the accent. And I dropped my pen, just to see what he would do, and he picked it up right away.” As it turned out, lots of the women there liked Ron, the instant they met him, and lots of the men liked Lillian the instant they met her. Both of them had a kind of contagious, winning spark. “You know, girls are really smart,” Jon, a medical student in a blue suit, said at the end of the evening. “They know in the first minute—do I like this guy, can I take him home to meet my parents, or is he just a wham-bam kind of jerk.” Jon is quite right, except, of course, it isn’t just girls who are smart. When it comes to thin-slicing potential dates, pretty much everyone is smart.
     But suppose I alter the rules of speed dating just slightly. What if I try to look behind the locked door and make everyone explain their choices? We know, of course, that that can’t be done: the machinery of our unconscious thinking is forever hidden. But what if I throw caution to the winds and force people to explain their first impressions and snap judgments anyway? This is what two professors from Columbia University—Sheena Iyengar and Raymond Fisman—have done, and they have discovered that if you make people explain themselves something very strange and troubling happens, and what once seemed like the most transparent and pure of thin-slicing exercises turns into something quite confusing.
     Iyengar and Fisman make something of an odd couple: Iyengar is of Indian descent. Fisman is Jewish. Iyengar is a psychologist. Fisman is an economist. And the only reason they got involved in speed-dating is that they had an argument, once, at a party about the relative merits of arranged marriages and love marriages. “We’ve supposedly spawned one long-term romance,” Fisman told me. He is a slender man, who looks like he is still a teenager, and he has a wry sense of humor. “It makes me proud. Apparently all you need is three to get into Jewish heaven, so I’m well on my way.” The two professors run their speed-dating nights at the back of the West End Bar on Broadway, across the street from the Columbia campus. They are identical to standard New York speed-dating evenings, with one exception. The participants don’t just date, and then check the box yes or no. On four occasions—before the dating starts, after the dating ends, a month later and then six months after the speed-dating evening, they have to fill our a short questionnaire. “On a scale of one to ten, rate what are you looking for in a potential partner?” The categories are:

Shared Interests

Then, at the end of every “date,” they fill out the same questionnaire again for the person they’ve just met. By the end of one of their evenings, then, what Fisman and Iyengar have is an incredibly detailed picture of exactly what everyone says they were feeling during the dating process. And it’s when you look at that picture that the strangeness starts.
     At the Columbia session, for example, I paid particular attention to a young woman with pale skin and blonde curly hair and a tall, energetic man with green eyes and long brown hair. I don’t know their names, but let’s call Mary and John. I watched them for the duration their entire date, and it was immediately clear that Mary really liked John and John really liked Mary. John sat down at Mary’s table. Their eyes locked. She looked down shyly. She seemed a little nervous. She leaned forward in her chair. It seems, from the outside, like a perfectly straightforward case of instant attraction. But let’s dig below the surface and ask a few simple questions. First of all: did Mary’s assessment of John’s personality match the personality that she said she wanted in a man before the evening started? In other words, how good is Mary at predicting what she likes in a man? Fisman and Iyengar can answer that question really easily, and what they find when they compare what speed-daters say they want and what they are actually attracted to in a moment is that those two things don’t match. So if Mary said, at the start of the evening, that she wanted someone intelligent and sincere that in no way means that she’ll be attracted only to intelligent and sincere men. On the contrary, it’s just as likely

"The real me is the me revealed by my actions. That’s what an economist would say.”

that John, who she likes more than anyone else, could turn out to be attractive and funny — and not particularly sincere or smart at all. Secondly, if all the men Mary ends up liking during the speed dating are more attractive and funny than they are smart and sincere, then the next day, when she’s asked to describe her perfect man, Mary will say that she likes men attractive and funny. But that’s just the next day. If you ask her again, a month later she’ll be back to saying that she wanted intelligent and sincere.
     You can be forgiven if you found the previous paragraph confusing. So do I. It is confusing: Mary says that she wanted a certain kind of person. But then you give you a roomful of choices, and she meets someone who she really likes and in that instant she completely changes her mind. But then a month passes and she goes back to what she originally said she wanted. So what does Mary really want in a man?
     “I don’t know,” Iyengar said, when I asked her that question. “Is the real me the one that I describe beforehand?”
     She pauses, and Fisman spoke up: “No, the real me is the me revealed by my actions. That’s what an economist would say.”
     Iyengar looked puzzled. “I don’t know that’s what a psychologist would say.” They couldn’t agree. But then, that’s because there isn’t a right answer. Mary has an idea about what she wants in a man, and that idea isn’t wrong. It’s just incomplete. The description that she starts with is her conscious ideal: what she believes she wants when she sits down and thinks about it. But what she cannot be as certain about is the criteria she uses to form her preferences in that first instant of meeting someone face to face. That information is behind the locked door.
     Braden has had a similar experience in his work with professional athletes. Ted Williams was perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, a man revered for his knowledge and insight into the art of hitting, and one thing he always said was that he could look the ball onto the bat, that he could track it right to the point where he made contact. But Braden knew, from his work in tennis, that that is impossible. In the final five feet of a tennis ball’s flight towards a player, the ball is far too close and moving much too fast to be really seen. The player, at that moment, is effectively blind. I said, “Gee Ted. We just did a study that showed that human beings can’t track the ball onto the bat. It’s a three millisecond event. And he was honest, he said—’Well, I guess it just seemed like I could do that.” Ted Williams could hit a baseball as well as anyone in history, and he could explain with utter confidence how to do it. But his explanation did not match his actions, just as Mary’s explanation for what she wanted in a man did not necessarily match who she was attracted to in the moment. We have, as human beings, a story-telling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.  

Copyright © 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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©2005 Malcom Gladwell and Nerve.com.