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Posts tagged ‘Malcolm Gladwell’

Thinking Laterally In A Linear World: Why More Education Isn’t Important

For the British social psychologist Liam Hudson, IQ as a measurement for achievement is a lot like height in the NBA, past a certain threshold, it doesn’t matter. In the NBA, that threshold is about 6 feet. Baring a few exceptions, nearly every player in the NBA Hall of Fame is at least 6 feet tall. For IQ, the threshold is around 120. Geniuses like Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal sported IQs well over 150. But Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics and widely considered one of the greatest physicists of all time, did just fine at 120. A high IQ correlates with things like good health, high salary and high academic achievement, but it guarantees little in terms of personal success. Indeed, scores of people with an IQ above 120 go on to accomplish next to nothing.

Malcolm Gladwell brings this research to light in his 2008 book Outliers. In addition, he examines the relationship between Nobel Prize winners and the colleges they graduated from. We tend to think that a Nobel Prize requires a diploma from an elite university, but a degree from elite institution does not matter as much as one might think. Gladwell looked at winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Chemistry and found that they represented a wide range of colleges including Hope, Hunter, Holy Cross and Antioch. He concludes that a good education, not an elite education, is sufficient.

Yet, would knowing this change anything? Would anybody turn down a few free IQ points? Would someone turn down Harvard for the University of Florida? No. Despite what the data suggests, we’re still obsessed with being the smartest and getting into the best school.

This is why education in the United States is thought of as an ascent: we progress upwards from 1st grade; a 4.0 is better than a 3.0 which is better than a 2.0; the valedictorian is at the top of his class; we move up in class rankings but not down.

The drive to be at the apex of society is a good attribute in the competitive world. But creativity isn’t linear; it’s about thinking laterally. It’s about reaching across domains to bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create one original idea. It’s about what exists at the periphery. It’s about, as Steve Jobs said, “connecting things.”

Just think about the traits creative people possess. As New York Times columnist David Brooks explains:

[They] don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets. First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Is competition trumping creativity?

Not exactly. Creative output is the product of its social and intellectual environment. There’s a reason ancient Athens was home to the best philosophers, Elizabethan England had the best playwrights, Silicon Valley harbors the world’s top tech entrepreneurs and North Korea doesn’t produce the same amount of Nobel Laureates as the United States. Certain circumstances favor creative expression.

Capitalism is one of those. When people are given the chance to pursue self-interest they usually do. They also tend to cluster: poets hang out with poets; fashion designers hang out with fashion designers; cognitive science professors hang out with cognitive science professors. The byproduct of our natural tendency to seek out likeminded people is improvement; being surrounded by the best makes us better. This is why, in a larger sense, competition is good for creativity.

Brooks would agree. However, his worry (and mine) is that on the path to improvement we’re ignoring the side roads. That is, competition should be thought of as a means to a niche – a place people go to create a creative monopoly. In today’s hyper competitive world, however, competition is a means to an end; we’re competitive just for the sake of it, and what’s lost is a willingness to be creative just for the sake of it.

This brings me back to Outliers. The lesson from the research that Gladwell highlights is that after a certain point in one’s academic career it’s important to focus less on better grades, test scores, acceptance letters and more on thinking laterally and seeking out original ideas. Indeed, understanding society only as a competitive myopia is a real creativity killer.

Do We Know What We Like?


People are notoriously bad at explaining their own preferences. In one study researchers asked several women to choose their favorite pair of nylon stockings from a group of twelve. After they made their selections the scientists asked them to explain their choices. The women mentioned things like texture, feel, and color. All of the stockings, however, were identical. The women manufactured reasons for their choices, believing that they had conscious access to their preferences.

In other words: “That voice in your head spewing out eloquent reasons to do this or do that doesn’t actually know what’s going on, and it’s not particularly adept at getting you nearer to reality. Instead, it only cares about finding reasons that sound good, even if the reasons are actually irrelevant or false. (Put another way, we’re not being rational – we’re rationalizing.)”

Our ignorance of our wants and desires is well-established in psychology. Several years ago Timothy Wilson conducted one of the first studies to illustrated this. He asked female college students to pick their favorite posters from five options: a van Gogh, a Monet and three humorous cat posters. He divided them into two groups: The first (non-thinkers) was instructed to rate each poster on a scale from 1 to 9. The second (analyzers) answered questionnaires asking them to explain why they liked or disliked each of them. Finally, Wilson gave each subject her favorite poster to take home.

Wilson discovered that the preferences of the two groups were quite different. About 95 percent of the non-thinkers went with van Gogh or Monet. On the other hand, the analyzers went with the humorous cat poster about 50 percent of the time. The surprising results of the experiment showed themselves a few weeks later. In a series of follow-up interviews, Wilson found that the non-thinkers were much more satisfied with their posters. What explains this? One author says that, “the women who listened to their emotions ended up making much better decisions than the women who relied on their reasoning powers. The more people thought about which posters they wanted, the more misleading their thoughts became. Self-analysis resulted in less self-awareness.”

Wilson found similar results with an experiment involving jams. And other researchers, including Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that we know if we like something, but we don’t know why and the more time we spend deliberating the worse off we are. Freud, then, was right: we’re not even the masters of our own house.

Our tendency to make up reasons for our preferences is of particular importance for advertisers, who sometimes rely on focus groups. But if we don’t know what we like, then how are ad agencies supposed to know what we like? The TV shows The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld, for example, are famous for testing terribly even though they went on to be two of the most popular shows in the history of TV. By the same token, many shows that tested well, flopped. As Philip Graves, author of Consumer.ology reminds us: “As long as we protect the illusion that we ourselves are primarily conscious agents, we pander to the belief that we can ask people what they think and trust what we hear in response. After all, we like to tell ourselves we know why we do what we do, so everyone else must be capable of doing the same, mustn’t they?”

Stories of the failures of market research are not uncommon. Here’s one from

At the beginning of the ’80s, I was a product manager at General Electric, which at the time had a leading market share in the personal audio industry (radios, clock radios, cassette recorders, etc.). Sony had just introduced the Walkman, and we were trying to figure out how to react. Given the management structure of the day, we needed to prove the business case. Of course, we did focus groups!

Well, the groups we did were totally negative. This was after the Walkman had been on the scenes for months, maybe a year. The groups we did felt that personal music would never take off. Would drivers have accidents? Would bicycle riders get hit by drivers?

If we listened to “typical” consumers, the whole concept was DOA.

This type of reaction is probably the reason that there is the feeling of a “technological determination” on the part of the electronics community. It leads to the feeling that you should NEVER listen to the consumer, and just go about introducing whatever CAN be produced.

At the time, we had a joke about Japanese (Sony/Panasonic/JVC) market research. “Just introduce something. If it sells, make more of it.” It’s one way of doing business. One the other hand, when I was hired by a Japanese company in the mid-80′s, I was asked how GE could get by with introducing such a limited number of models. Simple, I said, “We tested them before we introduced them.”

History tells which method has worked better.

One person who understood this was Steve Jobs. He never cared for market research or focus groups because, as he once said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Instead, Jobs was a pseudo- Platonist about his products. He believed that there was an ideal music player, phone, tablet and computer and trusted the customers to naturally recognize perfection when they saw it. When asked what market research went into the iPad, his New York Times obituary reports, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

I’m not the only we with an ancient Greek take on Jobs. Technology-theory contrarian Evgeny Morozov compared Jobs to Plato a few years back. He said:

The notion of essence as invoked by Jobs and Ive [the top Apple designer] is more interesting and significant—more intellectually ambitious—because it is linked to the ideal of purity. No matter how trivial the object, there is nothing trivial about the pursuit of perfection. On closer analysis, the testimonies of both Jobs and Ive suggest that they did see essences existing independently of the designer—a position that is hard for a modern secular mind to accept, because it is, if not religious, then, as I say, startlingly Platonic.

Does this mean all markers should think platonically? Not necessarily; Jobs, to be sure, was an outliner. But it does remind us that many times we don’t know what we like.  Read more

The Irrationality Of Irrationality

Reason has fallen on hard times. After decades of research psychologists have spoken: we humans are led by our emotions, we rarely (if ever) decide optimally and we would be better off if we just went with our guts. Our moral deliberations and intuitions are mere post-hoc rationalizations; classical economic models are a joke; Hume was right, we are the slaves of our passions. We should give up and just let the emotional horse do all the work.

Maybe. But sometimes it seems like the other way around. For every book that explores the power of the unconscious another book explains how predictably irrational we are when we think without thinking; our intuitions deceive us and we are fooled by randomness but sometimes it is better to trust our instincts. Indeed, if a Martian briefly compared subtitles of the most popular psychology books in the last decade he would be confused quickly. Reading the introductions wouldn’t help him either; keeping track of the number of straw men would be difficult for our celestial friend. So, he might ask, over the course of history have humans always thought that intelligence was deliberate or automatic?

When it comes to thinking things through or going with your gut there is a straightforward answer: It depends on the situation and the person. I would also add a few caveats. Expert intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment, as Kahneman argues in his latest book, and it seems like everyone is equally irrational when it comes to economic decisions. Metacognition, in addition, is a good idea but seems impossible to consistently execute.

However, unlike our Martian friend who tries hard to understand what our books say about our brains, the reason-intuition debate is largely irrelevant for us Earthlings. Yes, many have a sincere interest in understanding the brain better. But while the lay reader might improve his decision-making a tad and be able explain the difference between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala the real reason millions have read these books is that they are very good.

The Gladwells, Haidts and Kahnemans of the world know how to captivate and entertain the reader because like any great author they pray on our propensity to be seduced by narratives. By using agents or systems to explain certain cognitive capacities the brain is much easier to understand. However, positioning the latest psychology or neuroscience findings in terms of a story with characters tends to influence a naïve understanding of the so-called most complex entity in the known universe. The authors know this of course. Kahneman repeatedly makes it clear that “system 1” and “system 2” are literary devices not real parts in the brain. But I can’t help but wonder, as Tyler Cowen did, if deploying these devices makes the books themselves part of our cognitive biases.

The brain is also easily persuaded by small amounts of information. If one could sum up judgment and decision-making research it would go something like this: we only require a tiny piece of information to confidently form a conclusion and take on a new worldview. Kahneman’s acronym WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – captures this well. This is precisely what happens the moment readers finish the latest book on intuition or irrationality; they just remember the sound bite and only understand brains through it. Whereas the hypothetical Martian remains confused, the rest of us humans happily walk out of our local Barnes and Noble, or even worse, finish watching the latest TED with the delusion feeling that now, we “got it.”

Many times, to be sure, this process is a great thing. Reading and watching highbrow lectures is hugely beneficial intellectually speaking. But let’s not forget that exposure to X is not knowledge of X. The brain is messy; let’s embrace that view, not a subtitle.

Don’t Blink! What Are Behavioral Studies Really Saying?

Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink described several interesting accounts of how we make decisions not on reason, but on what is called, ‘rapid cognition.’ For example, Gladwell explained how small adjustments in how a product is presented can greatly change its sales:

“Christian Brothers, wanted to know why, after years of being the dominant brand in [brandy sales], it was losing market share to E&J. Their brandy wasn’t more expensive. It wasn’t harder to find in the store. And they weren’t being out-advertised.  “The problem [was] not the product and it [was] not the branding. It [was] the package.” Christian Brothers looked like a bottle of wine: it had a long, slender spout and a simple off-white label. E&J, by contrast, had a far more ornate bottle: more squat, like a decanter, with smoked glass, foil wrapping around the spout, and a dark, richly textured label. To prove their point, Rhea and his colleagues did [a] test. They served two hundred people Christian Brothers Brandy out of an E&J bottle, and E&J Brandy out of a Christian Brothers bottle. Which brandy won? Christian Brothers, hands-down”

Gladwell’s brandy story is an example of sensation transference, which is a fancy phrase that describes people’s tendency to unconsciously assess a product through emotion or sensation instead of reason. Since Blink was published, behavioral economic studies like these have become more popular with the public and academia. Many of them illustrate how the cognitive mechanisms that constitutes our decisions are out of our consciously control.

One of my favorites is a well known study by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. In it, they found that the tendency for people to sign up for an organ donation program in several European countries was largely a function of how a question was presented. The countries with nearly a 100% sign up rate used forms that read, “Check the box below if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.” The other countries with no more than a 28% sign up rate used forms that read, “Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” As the graph illustrates, a simple change in words can have a huge influence.

Then there is the fly in the urinal example, another favorite of mine. At the Schiphol Ariport in Amsterdam authorities etched tiny images of flies in the urinals in attempt to, shall we say, improve aim. It worked, and spillage reduced by 80%.

As I said, behavioral studies like these are becoming commonplace as more and more psychologists publish books. But as cool as behavioral studies like these are, their honeymoon phase is ending. Now, psychologists are trying to figure out what to do with them. So far, there have a been a couple of different routes that they have taken. They are used to…

  •  Improve policy and business decisions: Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. 
  • Improve well-being: Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and Flourishand Jonathian Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis
  • Improve decision-making at the individual level: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, and Kathryn Schulz Being Wrong.
However, if you read these books closely, you’ll find many overlapping points, like these two:

We travel to France, meet a couple from our hometown, and instantly become touring buddies because compared with all those French people who hate us when we don’t try to speak their language and hate us more when we do, the hometown couples seems exceptionally warm and interesting… But when we have them over for dinner a month after returning home, we are surprised to find that our new friends are rather boring and remote compared with our regular friends.


In Barcelona… I met Jon, an American tourist who, like me, did not speak any Spanish. We felt an immediate camaraderie… Jon and I ended up having a wonderful dinner and a deeply personal discussion… we exchanged e-mail addresses… [and] about six months later, Jon and I met again for lunch in New York. This time, it was hard for me to figure out why i’d felt such a connection with him, and no doubt he felt the same. We had a perfectly amicable and interesting lunch, but it lacked the intensity of our first meeting.

Pretty similar right? The first is from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which discusses “how well the human brain can imagine its own future,” and the second is from Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which outlines detriments to everyday reasoning. Their similarities aren’t a huge surprise, though. Both books exist in roughly the same area of study – the psychology of decisions-making/behavioral economics. However, they raise an important question: how are we treating behavioral psychology data?

On the one hand, you could say that psychologists – at least those who write popular books – are being a bit trigger happy when it comes to discussing the implications of behavioral studies. It is a fair point, and one that comes up often. On the other hand, you could claim that it is a good thing that these studies are being so widely applied – they are getting the public and academia (especially economists) excited about psychology.

Keeping both points in mind, I encourage psychologists and lay readers to keep their skeptic caps on at all times. In the mean time, psychologists will have to figure what all their data is really saying…

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