Malcolm Gladwell: Book Reviews

November 8, 2019

After Talking to Strangers, it's time to reread Gladwell's earlier books and add some analysis. A basic characteristic of Gladwell's books is developing theses that are not a thing; seemingly no one in their right mind would thing "talking to strangers" meant much of anything. Then he builds a case based on great story telling, somehow convincing us that, yes indeed, it is how the world works.

 

First up is: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005)--actually Gladwell's second book, but the first one I reread. Using a similar approach as Strangers, he focuses on stories to describe the subconscious "first two seconds," beginning with a fake kouros bought by the Getty Museum. It was a good fake and fooled the technicians, but the art experts knew something was wrong based on "intuitive revulsion." "The part of our brain that leaps to conclusions like this is called the adaptive uncounscious" (p. 11). The big questions is when to trust (our instincts) based on the first two seconds. 

 

Chapter 1: The Theory of Thin Slices. Patterns based on narrow experience were called "thin slicing," used by John Gottman to determine if marriages would survive. Video recorded every conceivable emotion which were detected in facial expressions. Contempt was the most important sign a marriage was in trouble. Women are more critical, men more likely to stonewall. Personality workup up Big Five Inventory: extraversion, agreeableness (trusting or suspicious), conscientiousness (organized or disorganized), emotional stability (worried or calm), openness to new experiences (independent or conforming) (p. 35). Patton and Napoleon had "coup d'oeil" (power of the glance); also bird identification.

 

Chapter 2: The Locked Door: Snap judgments (Vic Braden on tennis double faults). Priming experiments for unconscious influence, e.g., courteous versus rude. Think smart or dumb before taking GRE. Addicts: what you know versus what you do. "We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for" (p. 69). People are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. 

 

Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error. Harry Daugherty the "Machiavelli of Ohio politics, the classic behind-the-scenes- fixer." He got Harding into Ohio politics because he looked like a Roman senator. He was a dud, his speeches were "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea" (p. 74). This is the dark side of thin slicing, "the root of a good deal of prejudice and discrimination" (p. 76). Implicit Association Test (IAT), we make connections quickly between pairs of ideas already related in our minds. Tall means big bucks, Fortune 500 CEOs more likely to be tall, etc. 

 

Chapter 4: Paul Van Riper's Big Victory. Van Riper was a retired general assigned to the inferior Red Team in the Millennium Challenge. The Blue Team was trying out high tech intelligence equipment and should have won easily. But Van Riper did not fight as expected and won initial victories. They then changed the rules, allowing the Blue Tam to win and declare victory. Problem was information overload and a system that did not allow for quick adjustments. 

Improv comedy is not random; it requires rules and practice, allowing rapid cognition. Heart attacks in an emergency room. Do not rely on doctor's individual training and gathering extensive (possibly contrary) information. Instead statistics rules were developed by Lee Goldman to predict heart attack. Extra information is worse than useless, it's harmful, confusing the issue. 

Deliberative versus instinctual thinking, frugality matters. 

 

Chapter 5: Kenna's Dilemma. Dick Morris, working for Clinton, applying movie polling to politics. How to find out what people want: ask them directly. Maybe. The Pepsi challenge had people preferring Pepsi to Coke based on a sip (it is sweeter). Coke created New Coke to meet this challenge. Except people hated New Coke because they preferred the longer-term taste of a whole can (sip test versus home use). 20th century marketeer Louis Cheskin showed that packaging is critical to product success, using the example of margarine as a cheaper substitute for butter (call it Imperial with an impressive crown and color it yellow)--"sensation transfer." Key to marketing: manipulate first impressions. Market research is "too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different" (p. 174). ABC market tested "All in the Family" using questionnaires and Program Analyzer (pushed buttons to record impressions while watching show) to poor results; Mary Tyler Moore show also tested a loser. New and different vulnerable to market research. First impressions of experts can be different, because they rely on experience (e.g., Kenna as a singer). Introspection can destroy people's ability to solve insight problems (analyze texture in jams?). Unconscious reactions come out of a "locked room." Experts have experience to decode what lies behind snap judgments. 

 

Chapter 6: Seven Seconds in the Bronx. The shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. Patrolling "hot spots" meant police expected trouble and apparently assumed everyone was a crook. Mistake: Diallo looked suspicious doing nothing). When confronted, he was terrified and fled. It was a horrible accident or  a case of blatant racism. Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman developed "mind reading," studying faces based on common rules based on a taxonomy of facial expressions (used by Gottman and Pixar). Autism causes "mind-blindness," making it near-impossible to read non-verbal cues; a face is just an object. Extreme stress causes similar effects: tunnel vision, can process only limited information, motor skills break down, loss of perspective, then cognitive processing; a good reason to ban high-speed chases--mind blindness. Rapid decision making improves with training and experience.

 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was actually Gladwell's first book (2000). The tipping point according to Gladwell is "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point," where ideas or products spread like viruses. He starts with Hush Puppies and the relatively sudden drop in crime rates in New York City in the 1990's. The idea is contagious behavior, with little causes that have big effects, and change happens rapidly. There is a tipping point for new technology, such as cell phones. 

 

Chapter 1: The Three Rules of Epidemics. Gladwell describes the three rules of epidemics (agents of change): 1) the law of the few (key people with particular gifts); 2) stickiness factor, context that makes a memorable impact; and 3) the power of context, mainly environmental factors. The law of the few suggests the need for a few specific types of people: 1) Connectors who know and influence large numbers of people across many classes and circles; 2) mavens are information specialists who accumulate knowledge and share it with others; and 3) salesmen are charismatic people who persuade others with their negotiation skills. 

 

What caused Baltimore's syphilis epidemic: possibly crack cocaine, budget cuts to clinics, destroying old housing projects (moving high crime areas across the city). 80/20 principle, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the participants. Bystander problem: when people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused (more generally, people are sensitive to their environment).

 

Chapter 2: The Law of the Few. The story of Paul Revere who successfully spread the news that the British were coming ("most famous word of mouth epidemic") because he was a connector. Revere was a link to far-flung revolutionary forces; from Boston he knew exactly who to contact on the way to Lexington. Psychologist Stanley Milgram created an experiment to find out how connected people were, using letters to be forwarded, which was completed on average in 5-6 steps, creating the phrase "six degrees of separation." The point is that a small number of people are linked to everyone else (connectors, who bring the world together). [The best connected actor was Rod Steiger; Kevin Bacon not even close.] Sociologist Mark Granovetter studied connectors related to getting people jobs: it was the "weak ties" that worked, those that occupy a different world. Paul Revere was also a maven, one who accumulates knowledge. Market mavens get the information on deals and want to tell you about it (socially motivated data banks, wanting to solve other people's problems). Salesmen have to skills to persuade people when they are unconvinced, the concept of persuasion: persuasive arguments plus energy, enthusiasm, charm and likability. Nonverbal cues important (e.g., shaking your head). Musicians and good speakers are persuaders (crowds are with them). Senders are good at expressing emotions (measured by Affective Communication Test). 

 

Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor. Sesame Street and Blue's Clues. Good teaching is interactive, so stickiness factor is important; the idea is to make the message memorable. The "golden box" (find and get a free record) was a trigger. To get students to get vaccinations, a map with the health building was included with the times. Sesame Street insight: if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them (they look away when bored; watch when they understand, not when confused). The Distracter is used to get the students to pay attention. Pay attention to structure and format to increase stickiness. Blue's Clues was even more sticky than Sesame Street; idea of repetition--preschoolers search for understanding not novelty. The lesson of stickiness: "there is a simple way to package information to make it irresistible. 

 

Chapter 4: The Power of Context 1. Bernie Goetz, "Subway Vigilante." Epidemic crime problem in NYC in the 1980's, then declined in 1990's. Assumes that epidemics are sensitive to conditions and circumstances: drugs (usage fell), age range (fewer 18-24) [Levitt points to abortions], "broken window theory," Transit Authority cracked down on crime beginning with fare beating (plus checking on outstanding warrants) and improved infrastructure. Guiuliani appointed Bratton police chief, focused on insignificant crimes--as tipping point. Criminal as personality type, insensitive to norms of society. Gladwell says no, it's environment, crime as a result of social injustice, structural economic inequalities, institutional neglect. "Inner states" the result of outer circumstances. Philip Zimbardo and Stanford Prison experiment in 1970's: Guards acted like thugs, prisoners rebelled: situation so powerful it overwhelmed inherent predispositions (p. 154). Hartshorne and May 1920's children honesty experiments. When given answer key to "check answers, results improved, plus others: lots of cheating; smart children cheat less: honesty not a fundamental trait, instead, influenced by the situation (p. 157). Fundamental Attribution error (FAE): people overestimate fundamental character traits and underestimate situation and context. "Character isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits" (p. 163). Good Samaritan: experiment with seminarians: when in a hurry would not stop and help (only 10% stopped and helped; when they had plenty of time, 63%). Environmental tipping points are things we can change; e.g., peer and community influence (more important than family for children). 

 

Chapter 5: The Power of Context 2. Rebecca Wells and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, became successful when reading groups discovered it. Groups behave different than individuals, such as religious groups under charismatic evangelists. Medodism founder John Wesley who traveled around England to form religious societies. Rule of 150; cognitive psychology "channel capacity," like the magic number 7 (phone numbers). Robin Dunbar: brains get bigger to handle larger social group complexities; maximum number about 150. Works for villages or military organizations. Gore Associates, small company ethos opening new shops when hitting 150 employees, doesn't use formal management structure.  

 

Chapter 6: Case Study, Airwalk, tipped based on advertising for epidemic transmission, diffusion model for contagious idea moves through a population. Ryan and Gross hybrid seed study from 1930's: innovators, early adopters, majority, laggards. Visionaries versus pragmatists who make incremental improvements for progress. Risk: opportunity versus waste of money and time; safety nets can be useful. Connectors, mavens, and salesmen adopt, then are translators of specialized world and translate for the public (e.g., drop extraneous details for clear message). Baltimore free needle exchange worked through connectors (super exchangers). 

 

Chapter 7: Case Study. Teenage tipping points: suicide, smoking (correlation between smoking and depression): permission for deviant acts. Salesmen, stickiness, contagious. Kids are like parents; adopted kids not like adoptive parents. Influence especially with peers.

Conclusions. Epidemics require concentrating resources in key areas. Law of the Few says connectors, mavens and salesmen needed for word-of-mouth epidemics. Logic of networks: power and value come from abundance. IRAs: teachers as target group.

 

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) was Gladwell's third book, focusing on why people under particular circumstances succeeded, while others (usually outliers in their own right) did not. Examples include Canadian hockey players, the Beatles, Bill Gates, geniuses (based on IQ), even his own mom (the book is dedicated to his grandmother). One key is the 10,000 hour rule; another, when and where people were born; then there are interesting cultural factors, like Chinese rice farmers.

 

Introduction: The Roseto Mystery. Italian peasants from Roseto migrated to Bangor, Pennsylvania to work in the slate mines and basically retain their Italian culture. Amazingly, they did not suffer from heart disease or cancer; instead, they died of old age. According to physician Stewart Wolf, the only common factor seemed to be the tight social structure they retained, the idea of community. "In Outliers, I want to do for our understanding of success what Stewart Wolf did for our understanding of health" (p. 11). "There is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success. ... People don't rise from nothing. ... They are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up" (pp. 18-19).

 

Chapter 1: The Matthew Effect. Canadian hockey is a meritocracy, developing the best of the best. However, the pros were mainly those born in from January to March. At five that makes a big difference; therefore, they get the extra training from day one; that is, superior experience and "accumulated advantage." Robert Merton called the idea of abundance the "Matthew Effect." Gladwell points out these kids did not start out as outliers, but just a little bit better. 

 

Chapter 2: The 10,000 Hour Rule (that's 20 hours a week for 10 years). The key to success is this level of practice and consistent with Angela Duckworth's Grit (passion and perseverance). Computer programming is a meritocracy. Bill Joy got his early experience at Michigan, going on to rewrite UNIX, co-found Sun Microsystems and rewrite Java. Is their innate talent? Achievement would be talent plus preparation. However, innate talent doesn't seem to play a big role. At the Academy of Music, violinists were categorized as stars, good and music teachers. The difference seemed to be on the hours of practice. Differences seemed to show up around eight years old. The stars were the ones practicing 10,000 hours, future music teachers, 4,000 hours. Neurologist Daniel Levinit seemed tocome with the 10,000 hour practice rule. Practice is what makes you good. Bill Gates started programming in eighth grade, because he could access computer time by 1968. Birth year is a big deal. Fourteen of the 75 richest men ever were born in America in the 1830's  (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and so on). They were ready to benefit from the post-Civil War railroad and industrial boom. Ditto guys born in the mid-1950's accessing computers (Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt). 

 

Chapter 3. The Trouble with Geniuses. There are people with giant IQs, such as Chris Langan who arguably was a miserable failure because he could not navigate through cultural norms. Psychology professor Lewis Terman investigated high IQ people after World War I for the next 50 years. Lots of these people were successful: lawyers, doctors and so on and many basically failures (two people he interviewed he rejected as not smart enough won Nobel Prizes (William Shockley and Luis Alvarez). The Terman way is more or less how society academically views intelligence. Gladwell describes the Terman error; extraordinary IQ was not a deciding factor (intellect and achievement are not well correlated). Gladwell's point is it's more about opportunity than talent. There are other forms of intelligence, hard work is needed (10,000 rule), and timing and other forms of opportunity are needed. A Nobel Prize winner probably needs an IQ of at least 120 (but not 140 or more, for example). As they say, intelligence and talent are necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions. Success means you're above the threshold needed. 

 

Chapter 4: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2. Gladwell compares Langan's lack of cultural knowledge with Robert Oppenheimer success running the Manhattan Project: as one scientist put it: "He couldn't run a hamburger stand" (p. 99). General Groves was impressed with Oppenheimer because of his cultural "savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world" (p. 100), the concept of "practical intelligence;" it procedural: "knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it; and knowing how to say it for maximum effect" (p. 101). Analytic intelligence (measured by IQ) seems partly genetic, but "social savvy is knowledge, a set of skills that must be learned. Parents involved in children's free time develops this savvy (think wealthier parents); Gladwell calls this "concerned cultivation." Learning teamwork, how to cope in a structured setting, "the middle class children learn a sense of entitlement" (p. 105). Poor parents often are absent from their children's lives, even if the children are geniuses ("squandered talent"). Children are on their own, a strategy of "accomplishment of natural growth." 

 

Chapter 5: The Three Lessons of Joe Flom. Lawyer responsible for the success of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager and Flom. Flom graduated from law school in the 1950s's, but couldn't get a job at the major New York law firms because he was Jewish. Instead, he went to a lower level firm that actually did litigation. Here he learned the art of hostile takeovers, beginning with proxy fights--a technique that qualifies for "The Dark Side of Capitalism" treatment. This was great for the law firm, but obliterated the concept of stakeholder capitalism (see Brill's Tailspin). Flom is treated as an outlier, with his birth year a big part of the reason (the 1930's had a low birthrate, meaning kids could get a get a great education): he was in the perfect position to benefit skills learned in the 1950;'s to be a super-lawyer in the 1970's. All the firm shifted to litigation and especially mergers and acquisitions, but Flom had the expertise. (1930's great for lawyers, 1950's for software programmers, 1835 for entrepreneurs, that's Gladwell's "born for success" thesis). He expands the Jewish theme to Jewish immigrants; in Europe they could own no land, so they professions, primarily in the clothing trade. The hardest working became successful in the New York garment industry. The key was meaningful work: satisfying, autonomous, complexity, and effort was rewarded. The children of the garment workers often became lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. Note that Robert Oppenheimer was one of those, his father was a garment manufacturer. 

 

Chapter 6: Harlan, Kentucky. A small town in Kentucky with a blood feud, Howard-Turner, to go along with Hatfield-McCoy and others. This is a culture of honor, mainly Scotch-Irish ("world's most ferocious cultures of honor"), clannish, herdsmen living on rocky and infertile soil. They settled in America's infertile, marginal places; violence was personal, not economic. Other British regions are cavaliers settling in Virginia, Puritans in New England, Quakers in Delaware Valley. The four British cultures characterize those four regions. Psychology experiments suggest this culture this exists ("cultural legacies").

 

Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. This chapter introduces Hofstede Dimensions looking at cross-cultural psychology. One measure is individualism-collectivism scale. The US is the most individualistic culture on the planet; Guatemala the most collective. Another scale is uncertainty avoidance, how well a country tolerates ambiguity. Greece, Portugal and Guatemala do not tolerate ambiguity well; Singapore, Jamaica and Denmark do. The key dimension for this chapter was the power-distance index, attitudes on hierarchy and respect for authority. High power-distance countries have considerable respect for authority and the significance of hierarchy. The US is a low power-distance country, meaning not much respect for hierarchy. There is a problem flying planes in high-power-distance countries (Brazil, South Korea, Morocco Mexico, and Philippines top the list), because first officers (and others) don't challenge the pilot; the result was often crashes. The US is transmitter oriented, meaning it's up to the speaker to communicate clearly. High power-distance countries are receiver oriented, meaning it's up to the listener (like the pilot) to make sense of what's said. The solution was retraining.

 

Chapter 8: Rice Paddies and Math Tests. The focus is on the culture of Chinese rice paddies (Southern China and other Asian countries relying on rice farming). Rice paddies are built and success is an intricate set of steps and hard work to harvest two big rice harvests a year. It is full-time, back breaking work all year around. Virtually all other farmers have considerable down time during the year. Constructing the rice paddy, irrigation, dikes and gates, fertilizer, seeds, transplanting, weeding, all done on a rigid schedule. The more effort, the greater the profit; given the large number of people to the land available, skills and hard work. Work by hand versus the western focus on mechanical farming. Gladwell viewed this as meaningful work: "working really hard is what successful people do" (p. 239).

The Chinese number system is simpler than in English, meaning learning math is easier and possibly rooted in their culture. The attitude of hard work is important to mastering math. Math skills level correlated with how hard students are willing to work. The TIMSS test measures educational achievement. The leaders were Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, cultures shaped by wet-rice agriculture as meaningful work.

 

Chapter 9: Marita's Bargain. Early theories about education claimed that "over-study" was a cause of insanity. That and harvest time led to summers for kids and scaled back hours in school. Gladwell's analysis suggests that poor kids learn just as much during school as rich kids; the difference is the summers used for enrichment of rich kids, but not poor kids. Problem: not enough school. Other countries have longer hours during the school day plus more weeks in the year in school. Another problem is the need to make math meaningful; e.g., making kids work through difficult problems until they understand it. 

An interesting point is Gladwell referring success not to the brightest, nor decisions and efforts: "It is rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities--and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them" (p. 267). Basically, lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages are part of the success package; plus "the miracle of meaningful work" (p. 269).

 

Epilogue: A Jamaican Story. This is Gladwell's story of his mother, Joyce; the product of slaves and slave owners (the slave owners "had no trouble with the philosophical contradiction of cherishing the children they had with a slave and simultaneously thinking of slaves as property," p. 282); "colored in Jamaica," unlike the US where black is black. The colored became professionals. As luck would have it, she and her twin sister were well educated ("she was the inheritor of a legacy of privilege," p. 280). Joyce was sent to University College in London where she met and married Graham Gladwell, Malcolm's dad. The outliers in the book, including Joyce: "are the product of history an community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success ... is grounded in a web or advantages and inheritances, some deserve, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky--but all critical to making them who they are" (p. 285). 

 

 

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