30 Nov The Drunkard’s Walk (LEONARD MLODINOW) | Part C’
The actor’s name is Bruce Willis, and while he was in Los Angeles, an agent suggested he go on a few television auditions. One was for a show in its final stages of casting. The producers already had a list of finalists in mind, but in Hollywood nothing is final until the ink on the contract is dry and the litigation has ended. Willis got his audition and landed the role—that of David Addison, the male lead paired with Cybill Shepherd in a new ABC offering called Moonlighting.
It might be tempting to believe that Willis was the obvious choice over Mr. X, the fellow at the top of the list when the newcomer arrived, and that the rest is, as they say, history. Since in hindsight we know that Moonlighting and Willis became huge successes, it is hard to imagine the assemblage of Hollywood decision makers, upon seeing Willis, doing anything but lighting up stogies as they celebrated their brilliant discovery and put to flame their now-outmoded list of finalists. But what really happened at the casting session is more like what you get when you send your kids out for a single gallon of ice cream and two want strawberry while the third demands triple-chocolate-fudge brownie. The network executives fought for Mr. X, their judgment being that Willis did not look like a serious lead. Glenn Caron, Moonlighting’s executive producer, argued for Willis. It is easy, looking back, to dismiss the network executives as ignorant buffoons. In my experience, television producers often do, especially when the executives are out of earshot. But before we make that choice, consider this: television viewers at first agreed with the executives’ mediocre assessment. Moonlighting debuted in March 1985 to low ratings and continued with a mediocre performance through the rest of its first season. Only in the second season did viewers change their minds and the show become a major hit. Willis’s appeal and his success were apparently unforeseeable until, of course, he suddenly became a star. One might at this point chalk up the story to crazy Hollywood, but Willis’s drunkard’s walk to success is not at all unusual. A path punctuated by random impacts and unintended consequences is the path of many successful people, not only in their careers but also in their loves, hobbies, and friendships. In fact, it is more the rule than the exception.
Our society can be quick to make wealthy people into heroes and poor ones into goats. That’s why the real estate mogul Donald Trump, whose Plaza Hotel went bankrupt and whose casino empire went bankrupt twice (a shareholder who invested $10,000 in his casino company in 1994 would thirteen years later have come away with $636), nevertheless dared to star in a wildly successful television program in which he judged the business acumen of aspiring young people.
Obviously it can be a mistake to assign brilliance in proportion to wealth. We cannot see a person’s potential, only his or her results, so we often misjudge people by thinking that the results must reflect the person. The normal accident theory of life shows not that the connection between actions and rewards is random but that random influences are as important as our qualities and actions.
On an emotional level many people resist the idea that random influences are important even if, on an intellectual level, they understand that they are. If people underestimate the role of chance in the careers of moguls, do they also downplay its role in the lives of the least successful? In the 1960s that question inspired the social psychologist Melvin Lerner to look into society’s negative attitudes toward the poor. Realizing that “few people would engage in extended activity if they believed that there were a random connection between what they did and the rewards they received,” Lerner concluded that “for the sake of their own sanity,” people overestimate the degree to which ability can be inferred from success. We are inclined, that is, to see movie stars as more talented than aspiring movie stars and to think that the richest people in the world must also be the smartest.
We might not think we judge people according to their income or outward signs of success, but even when we know for a fact that a person’s salary is completely random, many people cannot avoid making the intuitive judgment that salary is correlated with worth.
Everyone knows that bosses with the right social and academic credentials and a nice title and salary have at times put a higher value on their own ideas than on those of their underlings. Researchers wondered, will people who earn more money purely by chance behave the same way? Does even unearned “success” instill a feeling of superiority? To find out, pairs of volunteers were asked to cooperate on various pointless tasks. In one task, for instance, a black-and-white image was briefly displayed and the subjects had to decide whether the top or the bottom of the image contained a greater proportion of white. Before each task began, one of the subjects was randomly chosen to receive considerably more pay for participating than the other. When that information was not made available, the subjects cooperated pretty harmoniously. But when they knew how much they each were getting paid, the higher-paid subjects exhibited more resistance to input from their partners than the lower-paid ones. Even random differences in pay lead to the backward inference of differences in skill and hence to the development of unequal influence. It’s an element of personal and office dynamics that cannot be ignored.
We miss the effects of randomness in life because when we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We in effect define degree of talent by degree of success and then reinforce our feelings of causality by noting the correlation. That’s why although there is sometimes little difference in ability between a wildly successful person and one who is not as successful, there is usually a big difference in how they are viewed. Before Moonlighting, if you were told by the young bartender Bruce Willis that he hoped to become a film star, you would not have thought, gee, I sure am lucky to have this chance to chat one-on-one with a charismatic future celebrity, but rather you would have thought something more along the lines of yeah, well, for now just make sure not to overdo it on the vermouth. The day after the show became a hit, however, everyone suddenly viewed Bruce Willis as a star, a guy who has that something special it takes to capture viewers’ hearts and imagination.
The power of expectations was dramatically illustrated in a bold experiment conducted years ago by the psychologist David L. Rosenhan. In that study each of eight “pseudopatients” made an appointment at one of a variety of hospitals and then showed up at the admissions office complaining that they were hearing strange voices. The pseudopatients were a varied group: three psychologists, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a student, a painter, and a housewife. Other than alleging that single symptom and reporting false names and vocations, they all described their lives with complete honesty. Confident in the clockwork operation of our mental health system, some of the subjects later reported having feared that their obvious sanity would be immediately sniffed out, causing great embarrassment on their part. They needn’t have worried. All but one were admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The remaining patient was admitted with a diagnosis of manicdepressive psychosis.
Upon admission, they all ceased simulating any symptoms of abnormality and reported that the voices were gone. Then, as previously instructed by Rosenhan, they waited for the staff to notice that they were not, in fact, insane. None of the staff noticed. Instead, the hospital workers interpreted the pseudopatients’ behavior through the lens of insanity. When one patient was observed writing in his diary, it was noted in the nursing record that “patient engages in writing behavior,” identifying the writing as a sign of mental illness. When another patient had an outburst while being mistreated by an attendant, the behavior was also assumed to be part of the patient’s pathology. Even the act of arriving at the cafeteria before it opened for lunch was seen as a symptom of insanity. Other patients, unimpressed by formal medical diagnoses, would regularly challenge the pseudopatients with comments like “You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist…you’re checking up on the hospital.” The pseudopatients’ doctors, however, wrote notes like “This white 39-year-old male…manifests a long history of considerable ambivalence in close relationships, which begins in early childhood. A warm relationship with his mother cools during adolescence. A distant relationship with his father is described as being very intense.”
The good news is that despite their suspicious habits of writing and showing up early for lunch, the pseudopatients were judged not to be a danger to themselves or others and released after an average stay of nineteen days. The hospitals never detected the ruse and, when later informed of what had gone on, denied that such a scenario could be possible.
The Drunkard’s Walk