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A Few Thin Slices of Malcolm Gladwell

"The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple," Malcolm Gladwell assured readers early in his hugely successful debut. "The best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."

Malcolm Gladwell Somewhere along the way to guru-dom, the New Yorker columnist got tagged as a business writer. Fair enough — The Tipping Point spoke more powerfully to the principles of succesful marketing than any pedestrian semester in the classroom. But while raves from Fortune, Business Week, and Management Today fortified his coronation on corporate campuses worldwide, how many business books also garner similar praise from Us magazine?

"I like looking at things that we take for granted," Gladwell explained during his recent visit to Powell's. "I'm not interested in the exotic. Neither of these books is about the exotic."

Nor is either strictly about business. Graffiti on subway cars, children's television programming, lovelorn suicides in Micronesia, facial expressions, symphony orchestras, indicators of a successful marriage... Gladwell's appeal can be traced directly to his studied obsession with familiar objects and events, and his remarkable talent for synthesizing complicated ideas into compelling stories.

In The Tipping Point, the author set out to describe how ideas, products, messages, and behaviors travel through culture. In Blink, he considers how effective decisions are made.

"We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it," Gladwell writes. "We think we're always better off gathering as much information and spending as much time as possible in deliberation."

Might we be wasting one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, our instinct? Do some circumstances dictate that an impulsive decision is best? If so, when would that be? And why?

Dave: In Blink's acknowledgements, you describe an encounter that got you thinking about "the weird power of first impressions." Three police officers approached you on the streets of Manhattan, looking for a rapist. You write, "The rapist, they said, looked a lot like me."

They pulled out the sketch and the description. I looked at it and pointed out to them as nicely as I could that, in fact, the rapist looked nothing at all like me....All we had in common was a large head of curly hair....This wasn't about something really obvious, such as skin color or age or height or weight. It was just about my hair. Something about the first impression created by my hair derailed every other consideration.

From that experience, how did the book take shape?

Malcolm Gladwell: What that moment did was crystallize for me the notion that there was a story to tell. A lot was happening in those two seconds [when the first impression was made]; that had never really been impressed on me before.

When you write a book, you need to have more than an interesting story. You need to have a desire to tell the story. You need to be personally invested in some way. That was what happened. If you're going to live with something for two years, three years, the rest of your life, you need to care about it. Suddenly I cared about the subject.

Dave: Throughout both books, you provide tests for readers to try. For example, you describe administering the triangle test to friends: You fill three glasses, two with Coke or Pepsi, and one with the other; the subject tries to identify which two are the same.

Is this what life is like inside the Gladwell home? You discover psychological tests in your research then invite friends over for dinner parties and subject them to your experiments?

Gladwell: I do like to use my friends as guinea pigs whenever possible, mostly because people love to take tests. There's nothing a set of highly competitive, over-educated New Yorkers like more than to be challenged in that way.

That particular test was so counterintuitive that I needed to try it on my friends before I believed it. I did it at a dinner party once with ten people. Sure enough, it works every time.

I've made money off that triangle test, routinely. I take bets on whether they can tell which drink is different from the other two, and I clean up. It will blow your mind. They can't do it. And when they do, it's clear they're just guessing. You watch them get more and more intense, and you can see they're just randomly picking.

Dave: What other ideas did you discover in the process of writing the book that you had trouble accepting?

Gladwell: I had a lot of trouble with the idea of unconscious prejudice, wrapping my mind around the fact that a significant aspect of the way that we treat other people is outside of our awareness. We're so deeply invested in the notion that we're in complete conscious control of our environment.

Then the stuff about the priming research is just so profoundly weird, as well, the idea that you can expose people in a surreptitious way to concepts and change their behavior. I thought we threw out that stuff years ago with subliminal seduction and Vance Packard. It turns out there's some basis. That was kind of freaky, too.

Dave: Similarly, you discuss the idea of sensory transference: Add a bit more yellow to a Seven-Up can and people will taste more lemon in the drink. These kinds of details are influencing our every day.

Gladwell: There is more going on beneath the surface than we think, and more going on in little, finite moments of time than we would guess. That's a classic example. What we think of as being a really straightforward, factual statement Seven-Up is too lemony is neither straightforward nor factual. It is an incredibly complex, highly subjective evaluation, which is being influenced by things we're not even remotely aware of. That's an eye opener.

The book is supposed to make us a little bit more humble about the veracity of our preferences, a little more humble about the basis of the decisions we make.

Dave: One of the lessons here is that we have to protect our intuition from influences that will corrupt it.

In some respects, as consumers not just of goods but of information, realizing how easily our intuition can be swayed, it would be easy to feel helpless in the face of important decisions.

Gladwell: The intention is not to make us feel helpless, although I can see how that would be an initial reaction. The intention is to reestablish the presence of mystery in our life.

The Tipping Point was intended to do the same thing, to re-mystify a lot of social processes I think we had overly simplified. That shouldn't make us disheartened. It should reaffirm our belief in how wondrously complicated and fascinating our life is.

If it really were as simple as me saying, "I hate this drink," or me saying, "I love this drink," how boring is the world? In fact if I know that whether I like this drink is a factor of a thousand different factors, only ten of which I'm aware of, and that the color of this glass is totally influencing the way I'm tasting what's in it, that's interesting. That says to me that human beings are complex, paradoxical, fascinating creatures.

Dave: And it is a paradox. Our advanced powers of analytical thought can often be an impediment to sound decision-making.

Gladwell: We are so complex that we're incapable of analyzing ourselves adequately.

People go to their shrink three days a week for ten years, and they're still only getting an imperfect picture of their own desires. Why do we think that in other realms we've somehow become transparent?

Dave: "There are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction," you write. "There are times when we demand explanation, when explanations really aren't possible, and? that mistake has serious consequences."

Your point made me think of the exit polls administered after the recent Presidential election. Suddenly "moral values" became national buzz words. "Moral values" swayed the election. The media latched on to those two words, politicians latched on to them, and we're now witnessing some substantial social changes engineered around that response.

But I couldn't help feeling that those poll results speak more to people's gut, inarticulate notion of what they should say than to their actual motivations or political beliefs.

Gladwell: I hadn't thought about it till now, but you're right. I talk in the book about this storytelling problem: When we cannot explain our unconscious desires, we simply make up a story, and the story has no necessary connection to the truth. It simply is the most plausible explanation we can come up with at the time.

That does beautifully apply to this post-election introspection we make people perform. I'm not sure we know fully all the reasons we chose to vote for one party or another, and you can't ask that question of people without expecting some degree of distortion in their answer.

I had the same reaction to that stuff. People who run around and tell me that the key factor in the election was people's aversion to same-sex marriage? I think that's crazy. I just can't believe the issue looms so large that it decided an election. It does seem to fit under one of these useful fictions that comes from a naïve belief that people can perfectly represent their own thought processes.

Dave: Your colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, published a book last year, The Wisdom of Crowds, that serves as an interesting counterpoint to Blink. Have you spoken about the books together? Do you find points of agreement?

Gladwell: We had a big dialogue in Slate a couple weeks ago, talking about this. Do our books contradict each other or are they reconcilable? We ended up saying that both of us have a problem with the notion that the best path to a good decision is for an expert to sit down, consider all the facts, work through them rationally and logically, come up with a hypothesis, and reach a conclusion.

That method has been enshrined by our culture as the paradigmatic way to reach the best possible decision. Jim thinks there are all kinds of problems with that, and that there are real instances where you're better off asking a thousand people who aren't experts. I think there are all kinds of problems with it, too, from the other direction: you're better off not going rationally and logically through all the variables sometimes; sometimes you're better off going with your unconscious judgment; sometimes you're better off limiting the number of options available to you.

Both of us are convinced that the decision-making model enshrined by our culture as the way to reach a conclusion is deeply flawed and needs to be supplemented with other models. In that sense, these books are very usefully read in combination.

Same with Moneyball by Michael Lewis, another book I feel is delivering a similar kind of critique. He's saying that naïve reliance on instinctive judgments in the field of baseball is similarly absurd. There are real instances where you've got to correct for the biases of snap judgments. I'm in total agreement with that.

I was inspired by Moneyball when I wrote my chapter about putting up a screen in the classical music room. You have to clean up these judgments sometimes if they're going to be any good.

Dave: It's interesting that you mention Moneyball. In a recent review, David Brooks used Lewis's conclusions to dismiss some of the notions in Blink. His argument had merit in the sense that Moneyball extols the virtue of statistical indicators, but that's only one point.

Gladwell: I think Moneyball is one of the most interesting and important books of the last decade. Michael wasn't claiming that there's no place for instinctive judgment in baseball. He was saying that when it comes to predicting whether a player is capable of playing in the major leagues, statistical measures are a more effective means than are the judgments of scouts.

But that's only one decision out of a hundred the general managers have to make. After you've done your statistical research, you've got to decide, Is this guy a good teammate? Does he work hard? Does he have a good attitude? Is he going to work out in the off-season? Is he capable of being coached? A thousand other decisions. Is he on drugs? Is he going to steal other people's wives?

There are all kinds of other factors that go into making someone an effective baseball player, and all of those are gauged by instinctive judgments. There is no data you can use to decide whether you think five years from now a guy is going to be someone who works out in the off-season or who loafs and gets fat.

Michael was saying that in this specific area, the snap judgment makes no sense. Billy Beane is a successful manager because he's really good at making all the other kinds of discussions, too. In that sense, I feel these arguments are entirely compatible.

Dave: And there's a parallel between what Lewis is saying and the story you tell about the Cook County Heart Study.

Gladwell: Same thing.

Dave: The challenge is to identify the relevant statistics and remove the rest from consideration.

Gladwell: And allowing the doctor, then, the freedom and time and energy to make effective, instinctive judgments on all the other things he or she has to do in the course of a day. Once I've diagnosed this patient with a heart attack, what do I do with him? How do I relate to him? Those are judgments. I don't see a contradiction between these books at all.

Dave: Many people, after The Tipping Point, came around to the idea of thinking of you as a business writer. But The Tipping Point isn't exclusively a business book. What connects your interests, the ideas that you like to write about?

Gladwell: What connects them, I suppose, is that I enjoy close examination of very mundane questions. I like looking at things that we take for granted.

I'm not interested in the exotic. Neither of these books is about the exotic. They're about meat and potatoes kinds of questions. Doctors in the ER, the great clichéd example of snap judgments. Dating. Pop music.

Some journalists like to write about things at the extremes. I like to write about things that go right down the middle. Pepsi and Coke, right? And I'm attracted to them precisely because to me what's most interesting is taking something we're completely familiar with and subverting it in some way. I'd rather write about The Gap than Prada, for that same reason. If you can find something weird below the surface of The Gap, that's so much more interesting than something weird below the surface of Prada. Of course something is weird below the surface of Prada.

And whatever is weird below the surface of Prada, by the way, at the end of the day is not going to be that interesting. It's Prada; it's for one percent of the population. But The Gap, which is for all of us, that's cool if you can discover something weird below the surface. That's the way I think about things, I suppose.

Dave: Part of your appeal derives from the fact that you do address topics of interest to a general culture. Many critics take you to task for that. It's as if they want you to be more academic. But that's not what you're aiming to do. You're citing studies, going out and doing interviews, and making your findings sensible and relevant to a broad readership.

Gladwell: I was in Palo Alto, at a reading, and someone raised her hand. She said, "I'm in a doctoral program in psychology, and just today when I said I was coming to your reading we had an argument in my class over you."

Half the people in her class said they thought I was making an original contribution to psychology and half thought I was just a popularizer of other people's ideas. And I said, "I don't understand why the second group considered that a criticism."

To say I'm a popularizer of other people's academic ideas is to me the highest praise you can offer. That's exactly what I am, and I'm proud to be it. And by the way, it's not easy. It's actually quite difficult. Not difficult in the same way that doing original research is, but it's a craft.

Some of these studies, in their virgin form, are pretty dry. You have to be quite creative to find ways to make them come alive. If that's what my talent is, I'm the happiest man in the world. I told the woman, "When you go back, tell the people who think they're being critical of me that I'm flattered by that description."

You're right. There are some people who puzzlingly hold me to that standard, but you can't let it bother you. I get lots of emails from academics, particularly academics whose work I have described, who are delighted. I got one today from a guy at Harvard who wrote me to say that his work would never reach a wide audience without my writing, and that really made me feel good.

Dave: Where do you find the people you choose to write about? The car salesman in New Jersey, for instance.

Gladwell: There, I just called up Ford and said, "Can you hook me up with your best salesman in the tri-state area?" He happened to be perfect for what I was interested in. Some of it is just luck. People tell me stuff. It was a very serendipitous process. There's no theory I use to do these things. I'm trying to tell a story, and I use whatever I can find.

Sometimes you hunt and hunt to find the right thing, but my experience in journalism is that there are a lot of good stories out there. The world doesn't lack for good stories. The world lacks for good storytellers. You spend even a modest amount of time looking around and making phone calls, and you'll happen upon someone who has an interesting story to tell. The question is, Can you tell it?

Some of them, like Pan Van Riper he's a character; there's no one who can't tell that story. What's to screw up? It's perfect. And the Cook County stuff, it's catnip.

Dave: Was there a tipping point to the success of The Tipping Point?

Gladwell: No, it started pretty slowly and it just seemed to go on at a steady level. It wasn't an epidemic curve. When I talk to booksellers, they say they sell x number a week and have for the last four years. It's not a good example of the phenomenon it was describing; it didn't have that kind of dramatic explosion. In fact the highest point it's ever reached on the New York Times bestseller list is next week.

Dave: What's been most interesting to you, post-publication, about The Tipping Point? Something you didn't suspect when you wrote it.

Gladwell: The most interesting topic tackled by The Tipping Point, to my mind, was the drop in crime in New York City. I was responding to the fact that none of the prevailing explanations were sufficient. You could say the crack market crested and fell, fine, but that doesn't get you all the way. You could say the economy got better, but that explains stuff down the line; it doesn't explain 1993 because the economy wasn't good in ninety-three. None of the explanations were sufficient, and I was responding to that.

Since then, the literature on why crime dropped as dramatically as it did in major cities in this country during the mid-nineties is totally fascinating. There are more explanations by the day, each of which gets you part of the way but still leaves you short. That's been really interesting. I feel validated by that. You need to have an epidemic model to make sense of it. None of the other models fully account for it.

I don't know if in my lifetime I will witness a social transformation as inexplicable and as dramatic as that. We took a city that was obsessed with crime, and in three years we removed crime and the obsession with it. People do not talk about crime anymore in middle class New York. Even in areas that were once deemed to be completely overwhelmed with crime, the fabric of everyday life has changed in ways that would blow you away. And that happened in three years. It's extraordinary. It's our version of the Berlin Wall falling. I still have not gotten over it.

When I was in Seattle last week, people were talking about crime. "Oh, you shouldn't walk through there because you'll probably get mugged," or "Someone burgled my house last week." I hadn't heard that discussion. New York's crime rate is unbelievably low right now. Park City, Utah, has a higher murder rate. It's profoundly weird. I don't get it. That whole discussion continues to fascinate me.

Dave: In a recent New Yorker [January 3, 2005], you reviewed Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse, and you applied his findings to a recent ballot measure here in Oregon. In Diamond's worldview, clearly, the cultural decision-making process that led to the passage of Measure 37 was a failure.

Gladwell: That's Diamond's point. I loved Collapse. It really made a difference in the way I think about the world.

His central point was that the framework we use to decide issues having to do with rights in a democratic society, or cultural values, is very good and incredibly sophisticated, but that same framework applied to issues of our ecology or our environmental heritage is deeply flawed. The arguments we use don't work when we're talking about the environment.

It's another great example of a decision-making model that works in one sphere beautifully may not work in another. Sometimes we need to switch models. To me the lesson of Measure 37, which I'm a huge opponent of even though I realize I'm out of state and some people may be offended by my presumption was that it was a failure of language, a failure to articulate the problem in the right form; it was being talked about all wrong.

You can't apply the language of property rights if you're trying to make rational decisions about the ecological future of a geographical region. You can't use that language. It doesn't work, for the same reason the standards of proof used by lawyers are different than the standards of proof used by scientists.

You can't use legal arguments in science and you can't use scientific arguments in law. You just can't do it. I don't care how much you want to or how comfortable it is. You just can't. The presumption of innocence there's no presumption of innocence in scientific proof, right? There, we understood the inadequacy of certain models for certain kinds of decisions. We need to extend that thinking and say, Look, when it comes to questions of our environmental heritage and our ecological future, we need a different way of talking. We need to accept a different set of premises.

Dave: Any other books you've enjoyed lately?

Gladwell: I love thrillers, and my great discovery of the last year or so is Lee Child. I've gone back and read every Jack Reacher novel. That's my special delight of the moment.

The book that intellectually affected me the most was written by Gilbert Welch. It's called Should I Be Tested for Cancer? A terrible title but a brilliant book, which totally changed my whole understanding of how we test for cancer and my understanding of statistics and medical knowledge and uncertainty. A beautiful, beautiful book which deserves to be republished by a mass house and properly marketed.

Malcolm Gladwell visited Powell's City of Books on January 25, 2005.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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