How Malcolm Gladwell connects psychology to everything
It takes Malcolm Gladwell exactly one sentence into the first chapter of his book, Blink, to mention a psychologist. That’s not counting the three others he already mentioned in the book’s introduction. In Blink, Gladwell discusses the power of first impressions, so one’s attention is drawn to these early psychological references for a revealing glance into the author’s own essence. “I don’t really have a formal intellectual agenda,” he says, “because I depend on psychologists to come up with new things for me to think about.”
Gladwell, who is primarily a writer for The New Yorker, goes on to cite nearly two dozen more psychologists in Blink. In his first book, The Tipping Point — which remains near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction, despite being six years old — he references nearly 30 more behavioral researchers. And this May he will address an auditorium full of them at the Association for Psychological Science 18th Annual Convention, in New York.
On a recent evening, Gladwell sat in a dim neighborhood restaurant and tavern in the West Village, where he lives, explaining his interest in psychological science. “Psychology is concerned with the things all of us are concerned with, so it was kind of natural,” he said. “It’s one of the few disciplines that’s looking in a kind of rigorous way at how human beings respond to things like change.”
Gladwell has a large Afro with loose curls that occasionally hang over his forehead. Before answering questions, he often rubs his face and tugs on his hair at the sides. Sometimes he strokes the whole mop backwards. When Gladwell smiles in the soft candlelight, his cheeks take on a gray glow, full of ghostly electricity. “I’m a parasite,” he said. “I’m a psychological parasite.”
The Crowbars of Real People
“I have two parallel things I’m interested in,” Gladwell said. “One is, I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.” A decade ago, when he was first starting out at The New Yorker, Gladwell found such an overlap. It began with a strange observation: people in New York weren’t killing each other as much as they used to. Not only that, but they weren’t stealing as many cars, or burglarizing as often. As a city, in fact, the crime rate was on par with Boise, Idaho. Police officials said that crime had dropped because they were cracking down on subway turnstile hoppers and wiping graffiti off trains. To Gladwell, those efforts seemed too small to cause such a giant dip, so he took what has become something of a signature step. He followed the change back to its roots in a psychology lab.
Almost three decades earlier, Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University, had done an experiment in which he parked two cars in equally bad neighborhoods — one in the Bronx, and one in Palo Alto. Zimbardo removed the license plates on the Bronx car and left its hood ajar; it was stripped within a day. The car in California, left fully intact, sat untouched for a week. As an encore, Zimbardo smashed a window of the California car, which then was stripped within hours. “Zimbardo’s point was that disorder invites even more disorder — that a small deviation from the norm can set into motion a cascade of vandalism and criminality,” Gladwell wrote — hence, the importance of stopping petty crimes. Gladwell’s point was that a psychologist’s understanding of human behavior goes beyond the lab — into the fingertips, minds, and, in some cases, crowbars of real people.
Gladwell’s approach varies from piece to piece. Sometimes, as in the case of New York’s falling crime rate and Zimbardo’s research, Gladwell starts with the behavioral observation and culls the psychological literature to see whether research has anything to say about it. Other times, the process works in reverse. When we met, Gladwell was writing an article that began when he came across research from psychologists at the University of Liverpool, who were studying how the FBI profiles serial killers. But while digging through police files, Gladwell decided to broaden the topic of research on racial profiling to include a discussion of why so many American cities are banning pit bulls.
“At a certain point it becomes hard to distinguish which way the process goes,” Gladwell said. “It’s very hard to untangle all of these lines. And psychologists would be the first to support the notion that it’s very hard to untangle.”
A ‘Straight Psychological Investigation’
Psychology may guide Gladwell’s writing, but so does his heightened social awareness, particularly for how situations dictate behavior. Several years ago, Gladwell decided to grow his hair out. He had never gotten a speeding ticket before, he writes in Blink, but suddenly he was being pulled over on the road, and pulled out of security lines at airports, on a regular basis. One day, while walking along 14th Street in Manhattan, police officers approached him, saying he fit the description of a wanted rapist. The picture of the suspect, Gladwell writes, looked nothing like him. The man was taller, heavier, younger, and — as Gladwell pointed out to a less-than-amused officer — “not nearly as good looking.” All they shared was a large mass of hair.
The result of this encounter was Blink, a book about the remarkable accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of snap judgments, which Gladwell described as “a straight psychological investigation.” In fact, he described both his books as psychology books written for non-psychology specialists. “They are an attempt to put a lot of psychological thinking into an accessible language, to tell stories with the psychological innards exposed.” Gladwell considers himself somewhat of a liaison between the public and psychological science. “My mandate is to convince people that this discipline is exciting and to use the discipline in making us think in different ways about social problems or political issues, and that requires taking some liberties — not liberties, that’s too strong a word — that requires having fun with it.”
“There’s a million self-help books out there, but what sets his work apart is his ability to explain the methods research psychologists use in a scientific way,” said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia, an admirer of Blink. “He really popularizes the science and not just the finding.” Many reporters will call and ask a researcher to summarize his work, Wilson said, but Gladwell only calls when he can’t figure something out. “In journalists’ defense, they’re not professional psychologists, so they have no reason to understand research as an insider. But Malcolm does.”
Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, was inspired to write his own bestselling book, Freakonomics, after reading The Tipping Point. “A lot of us want to be an amateur psychologist,” Levitt said. “What Malcolm’s books are to me are a way to learn all the fun stuff in psychology without having to slog through the parts that a professional does.” Freakonomics, also a mixture of culture and academia, brought many comparisons with Gladwell, but Levitt is quick to point out that he had a journalistic co-author, Stephen Dubner, while Gladwell bridges the two worlds himself. “Academic rigor is good, but it doesn’t lend itself to making things fun,” Levitt said. “How Malcolm manages to skate both lines is amazing.”
Some people disagree over how well he skates these lines. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, was more impressed with Blink’s fun parts than its scientific contributions. “Gladwell never tells us how the brain performs these amazing cognitive feats,” writes Brooks, who goes on to say that many authors have gone further into the chemistry of the unconscious. “We just get the scattered byproducts of the mysterious background stage.”
But as hard as he works to nail down the science, Gladwell believes that part of psychology’s attraction is its pop component. “We are all lay psychologists, in a way that we’re not lay physicists,” he said. “I do think that, in a certain sense, psychology is not a hard science, in the sense that there’s a lot of judgment and interpretation and artistry involved in it of necessity, because we’re dealing with something that’s inherently mysterious: human behavior. You can’t treat human personality like you can treat some inert physical matter — it’s not like studying rock formations.
“To say that it’s soft, to some people, is to say that it lacks meaning and rigor, and that’s a mistake,” he went on. “That’s nonsense. I’m making a distinction between something that’s entirely empirical and something that requires some large element of interpretation and creativity.”
Gladwell said he avoids other sciences because they are harder to explain to a large audience, but his respect for psychology goes beyond his ability to convey its findings. “We’re all actively engaged in all sorts of psychological analysis in our everyday lives,” he said. “There’s this powerful, simplifying, and corrupting force going on with psychology.” Gladwell brings psychological research deep into the average mind, a place many psychologists study but don’t have the time or capacity to reach. “If every psychologist is only interested in popularity, no one actually does the science anymore,” he said. “It’s up to people like me to take the time and energy to hunt down what’s cutting edge and try to understand it and take the time to explain it to a larger group.”
The Man From Elmira
Gladwell grew up in Elmira, Ontario, a farm town known for its annual Maple Syrup Festival and its strong Mennonite population. “I felt no sense of the outside world in a kind of charming way,” described Bruce Headlam, an editor for The New York Times, who has been friends with Gladwell since first grade. In high school, Gladwell started a publication called Ad Hominem: A Journal of Slander and Critical Opinion, in which each article attacked someone personally. The journal was mimeographed at a friend’s family chicken feed and supply store.
Gladwell attended the University of Toronto, Trinity College — he writes in a recent article that he didn’t take the SATs and simply ranked schools on a list — where he studied history. Despite having no newspaper experience, Gladwell joined The Washington Post during a hiring spree in 1987. He began as a business reporter then covered AIDS (“back when they had a single AIDS reporter”) and health policy. By the early 1990s, he was the Post’s bureau chief in New York, where he occasionally contributed to The New Yorker and was eventually lured on staff. “You’re sacrificing adrenaline rush for intellectual fulfillment,” he said of the move. “That makes a huge difference in how satisfying the result is.”
At The New Yorker, Gladwell has carte blanche to choose his topics, a dangerous recipe for a person whose range of interests is defined best by what it lacks: “politics, astronomy, physics — that’s probably it.” His challenge is to translate his vast curiosity and eccentricities in a meaningful way. In an article about the reliability of photographs, for example, he ties hunting Scud missiles to mammography. When writing about the flaws of personality tests, he uses the story of a heroic soldier in the South Pacific to reveal problems with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Thematic Apperception Test. In a story about a cookie bakeoff, he connects software engineering, crisis rehearsals at nuclear power plants, and the texture of a tortilla chip. Then he brings the whole thing around to a behavioral lesson with business significance: why a small, close-knit team can beat a few dozen superstars at a creative task. (A strawberry-cobbler cookie won.)
“I think journalists go into the world with a certain set of political biases,” Headlam said of Gladwell. “I’m not sure he has any of that. He is completely open to every idea, even if he disagrees with it, if it’s interesting and captivates him. It’s always a wide variety of things. He gets more sheer joy out of figuring out the world than anyone I’ve ever met.” Levitt said Gladwell’s success “ultimately comes back to storytelling. He finds examples that have seemingly little to do with each other and yet every one of them ties together.” Levitt first picked up Blink when a flight of his was delayed on the tarmac for several hours. He read it straight through. “The reason Malcolm’s style works is there is an abundance of fascinating ideas in science, but they’re not written in fascinating ways.”
To Gladwell, though, the stories are a natural extension of the research. After all, the psychology lab is the ideal breeding ground for social reflection. “It’s not like they’re focusing on some incredibly obscure corner of the way we operate,” Gladwell said of psychologists. “Much of social psychology is interested in answering some fairly basic questions about human behavior or human nature. It’s not difficult at all to find an appropriate story to bring that research to life.”
A ‘Gladwell Piece’
On a June afternoon in 1996, a 32-year-old piano teacher was beaten nearly to death in Manhattan’s Central Park. The victim remained comatose for several weeks, and newspapers reported her condition with the regularity of the horoscope or the crossword puzzle — from her slim chance of survival, to the piano tunes played at her bedside, to her first words. At The New Yorker office, Henry Finder, an editor, had little hope that the story could be told in a fresh, thoughtful way. “I feared the worst, because the story had sort of a tabloid savor to it,” Finder said recently. He assigned the story to a writer with only a few New Yorker pieces under his belt — who, just a month earlier, had written about how crime was dropping in New York faster than anywhere in the country. Deadline was in 72 hours, said Finder, and with that, Malcolm Gladwell made his way toward New York Hospital.
By Finder’s description, what Gladwell delivered was almost as miraculous as the young woman’s recovery. Gladwell discovered that the victim received specialized neurosurgical care only available at select hospitals; had she not been taken to one of the country’s best emergency units, she likely would have died. He also found out, “as not everyone would have,” Finder said, that the woman’s doctor was a major figure in this issue of hospital practice variation, and Gladwell used the victim’s story as a vehicle to discuss the larger story of medical policy. “Quite an alchemy to be done in two days,” said Finder, who has been Gladwell’s editor for 10 years. “He was a clear keeper.”
This method of weaving character-driven narratives into larger social conclusions has become a distinct style of writing that Finder calls “a Gladwell piece.” “He’s created a new generation of journalism,” Finder said. “He fashions larger social arguments. He embodies relevant research then he builds social direction of his own.” Calling on academics to inspire thoughts about culture distinguishes Gladwell’s approach. “Most journalists are terrified of the world of academic expertise, and he isn’t,” said Nicholas Lemann, fellow New Yorker writer and dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “He has a set of intellectual and analytical skills, and another set of writing skills. It’s a rare marriage.”
Perhaps the best illustration of how Gladwell explains behavior through academic psychology is an article from 2004 called “Getting Over It.” The story is about two fictional war veterans dealing with traumatic memories, but the broader issue is how people predict their emotional states, which researchers call “affective forecasting.” One character remained haunted by war memories — a lingering psychological damage that has become the modern soldier’s master narrative. The other repressed his thoughts, which, Gladwell writes, is closer to our actual psychological response. “People are bad at forecasting their emotions — at appreciating how well, under most circumstances, they will recover,” he writes, bringing in evidence from eight psychologists, including Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. Gilbert and Wilson had found that people who barely missed a subway felt less regret than those who were asked how they thought they would feel if they barely missed a subway. “When the [New York] Times did a piece on Dan Gilbert and affective forecasting, they said here’s Dan Gilbert, here’s what affective forecasting is, and that’s the piece,” Finder said. “That’s not a Gladwell piece.”
The attention Gladwell brings to behavioral science, and his intent to relate it to real-world behavior, earns him respect from many of the psychologists he covers. “There are very few journalists that professors learn from,” said Wilson. “We read his books and we know the research, but he’s able to make connections and put it in ways we learn from. He’s able to tell stories that capture the work well.” Gladwell is quick to place credit on the researchers he covers. “In my experience, when you actually talk with the people who do this, they’re incredibly good at explaining it clearly,” he said. “The wonderful thing about writing about the work of teachers is they almost always make it simpler. I’m aware that if it’s not clear, everything fails.”
“The difficulty of explaining something for a mass audience is a very different difficulty than writing for an academic audience,” he went on. “There are people, like Steven Pinker, who have the gift to do both, but they’re rare.” It makes sense that Gladwell would, consciously or not, draw a remarkably apt connection between himself and Pinker — another author who found success lending a popular slant to behavioral research, who spoke at last year’s APS Annual Convention, who has big hair. In fact, if pictures of each were placed side by side, it might be hard to tell with a quick look which is the psychologist.
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