Malcolm Gladwell Reaches His Tipping Point

October 3, 2019 | 0 | Education and Training

After 20 years, has the author’s formula at last been exhausted?

Amy Harris / AP

It’s a bit embarrassing to finish a book by Malcolm Gladwell—master of the let me take you by the hand prose style, dealer in the simple and unmistakable thesis—and realize you don’t quite know what he’s driving at.

Gladwell’s method is well established and, you would think, fail-safe. It’s one of the reasons his books have sold millions of copies. Among his other talents, he’s one of those “professional communicators” that public-speaking coaches always say we should emulate: First he tells his audience what he’s about to tell them, then he tells them, and then he tells them what he just told them. He should be impossible to misunderstand. I must be an idiot.

Another possibility is that nearly 20 years after The Tipping Point, his best-selling debut, the Gladwell formula is at last exhausted.

Confusion comes early in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell’s latest, partly because it isn’t the book we were led to believe it would be. Advance notices of Talking to Strangers promised that Gladwell would explain how we “invit[e] conflict and misunderstanding” when we find ourselves talking to stra … uh … conversing with people we don’t know. The subject is timely. If there’s one thing cultural critics have agreed to complain about, it’s that the Big Sort is nearly complete, and we have all retreated to our own socioeconomic and cultural bubbles, where exposure to people who think and act differently from us can be strictly controlled and rationed.

At least that’s the complaint in my bubble; I can’t speak for yours. The fractures of class and belief have inspired many well-meaning and systematic attempts to address them. The United States is host to a large “civil dialogue” movement, complete with membership organizations and inspirational tracts, devoted to helping us understand one another better. Gladwell has always seemed bored by politics—it’s one of his most appealing traits as a public figure—and in the new book, he wants to frog-jump our pettier divisions and take his readers back to the wellsprings of social relations, wellsprings that have been poisoned by a set of presumptions he wants us to correct. The sooner the better.

The frame for the book, appearing at the beginning and reprised at the end, is the story of Sandra Bland, who was pointlessly jailed after a routine traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas, in 2015. She committed suicide in her cell three days later. The conversation between the arresting officer and Bland, recorded on police radio, went viral on YouTube.

Talking to Strangers,” the author writes, “is an attempt to understand what really happened” when the policeman pulled Bland over. On one level, of course, we already know what happened—we’ve got the police recording. Gladwell wants to go deeper. The tragedy of Sandra Bland is that she and the policeman were strangers to each other, unable to bridge a social divide. Usually, Gladwell writes, “we put aside these controversies after a decent interval and move on to other things.” But not him. “I don’t want to move on to other things.”

Then he moves on to other things: the first meeting between Cortés and Montezuma in the 16th century, Adolf Hitler’s snow job of Neville Chamberlain, a sneaky Cuban spy who embedded herself in the upper ranks of the Pentagon, Jerry Sandusky and his enablers, Bernie Madoff and his pigeons, the suicides of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and many more. Each of these unhappy episodes, Gladwell writes, was caused by the faulty “translation strategies” used by the men and women involved. “Talking to Strangers,” he says, “is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”

Like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, then, Gladwell thinks the time has come to talk of many things. Too many, in fact. His millions of admiring readers often treat Gladwell’s books as the high-journalism version of Bond or Bourne movies, breakneck adventures that take us on a tour of exotic intellectual locales. He introduces us to historical oddities, revisionist interpretations of the past, the frontiers of social science, the backstories behind recent headlines, all strung together along a single provocative thesis.

In Talking to Strangers, however, the thesis never emerges. Instead he leads us into culs-de-sac that even so smooth a talker as Malcolm Gladwell can’t charm his way out of. The opening chapters of the book are devoted to what he calls two great “puzzles.” The first puzzle is, “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?” To illustrate the point, he describes the success of a large network of spies that Castro’s Cuba managed to establish throughout the Western world, fooling even the most battle-tested U.S. intelligence officers.

This isn’t much of a puzzle. The spectacular incompetence of Western intelligence agencies must be old news by now, given their decades-long misreading of the Soviet economy, the false alarm sounded over Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent chemical weapons, squads of undetected moles and double agents, and other misadventures too numerous to count. Is it so surprising they missed a Cuban spy ring, too? The reasonable answer to the question of why we can’t spot lying strangers is: Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t. Some people are better at lying, some people are better at detecting lies, some people are all-around clueless. It depends on who the stranger is, who we are, and what the lie is.

Then we move on to Gladwell’s second puzzle-that’s-not-really-a-puzzle: “Why are people who know the stranger deceived when others who don’t know them [sic] aren’t?” As an example, he cites the story of Chamberlain, the prewar British prime minister who believed that a few chummy chin-wags with Hitler might avert war with Nazi Germany. Leaders of free nations, facing a thuggish tyrant, are particularly susceptible to this mistake; President Donald Trump is busy making it right now with his “brilliant” friend Kim Jong Un. In Chamberlain’s case, nearly all his advisers encouraged him in his facile hope. The only high-ranking statesman who was loudly skeptical was Winston Churchill. And Churchill, Gladwell notes, as if surprised at the irony, had never met Hitler.

Yet the difference between Churchill’s reaction to Hitler and Chamberlain’s had nothing to do with who met whom. Churchill enjoyed a surer grasp than Chamberlain of European history, a more realistic understanding of the behavior of tyrants, and a wider, more imaginative view of the depravities that come with human nature. No “translation strategies” were needed.

Amid the general confusion, Gladwell never defines “stranger.” The word shifts meaning depending on what his cascading anecdotes require. In Talking to Strangers, a stranger could be someone we’ve never laid eyes on, someone we know only by reputation, someone we’ve seen several times, someone we’ve talked to once or twice, even someone we know pretty well. The vagueness makes his excursions seem diffuse and unconnected as a result.

Gladwell’s many critics often accuse him of oversimplification. Just as often, though, he acts as a great mystifier, imposing complexity on the everyday stuff of life, elevating minor wrinkles into profound conundrums. This, not coincidentally, is the method of pop social science, on whose rickety findings Gladwell has built his reputation as a public intellectual. In its most decadent and easily marketed form, social science specializes in taking axioms known to every 19th-century schoolteacher and duding them up as heuristics or effects or biases.

Believing that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” thus becomes loss aversion. “Counting your chickens before they’re hatched” gets the fancy treatment as projection bias. If you prefer information that seems agreeable to your point of view, social science teaches that you suffer from confirmation bias—no less a defect for having been shared by every human being who ever lived. People who fall for someone because their parents can’t stand her or him are exhibiting the Romeo and Juliet effect. Really. In social psychology, it’s a thing.

Gladwell is both a sucker for and a master of this kind of obfuscation. Some Gladwellisms have entered everyday speech. In addition to the tipping point, he’s given us connectors, mavens, stickiness, and the law of the few. And the 10,000-hour rule, of course, which taught us that greatness in art was reachable after we had practiced our craft for 10,000 hours—a “rule” so riddled with obvious exceptions and provisos that it can scarcely be called a rule, even metaphorically.

In Talking to Strangers, however, Gladwell’s catchphrase factory has unexpectedly shut down. The lack of zippy new sayings contributes to the book’s general sense of fatigue. The closest he comes is the phrase default to truth, which he uses more than 20 times, not counting chapter titles. Default to truth comes to us from a psychologist named Tim Levine, the coiner of his own truth-default theory. Levine designed a series of ingenious experiments on college kids to “discover” a universal human truth: All things being equal, we are much more likely to believe that people are telling the truth than that they are lying.

Gladwell seems more impressed by this insight than he should be. He calls it a “profound point.” If nothing else, it’s certainly an obvious one. If we didn’t default to truth, we would find it hard to function in the world. We can’t treat every encounter as a toss-up: Is this wisenheimer telling the truth or is he trying to pull a fast one on me? Adjusted for circumstance and our own experience, assuming the truthfulness of others is simply a necessity for social beings. One unfortunate side effect, which Gladwell considers at great length, is that we are correspondingly ill-equipped to detect liars. Lucky for us, most people tell the truth most of the time. Our faulty built-in lie detectors seem a small price to pay for what is otherwise an indispensable social lubricant.

I don’t know whether default to truth will enter the Gladwell lexicon with tipping point and stickiness. But his appropriation of the phrase does show that his attitude to social science remains unquestioning. When he encounters a study published in a journal with a complicated name, he defaults to swallowing it whole. At times he approaches self-parody. Just follow the footnotes.

“Poets die young,” he writes, in a section on Sylvia Plath. “And of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”

Interesting, sort of, if true! But how would such a calculation be made? Poet is a strange “occupational category.” Hardly anybody makes a living as a professional poet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its Standard Occupational Classification System, lists 867 occupations. The closest it gets to “poet” is “Writers and Authors,” a category so baggy it includes bloggers and advertising copywriters. What kind of poet wants to be confused with Mad Men? Wallace Stevens wrote sublime poetry, but I think the BLS would still prefer to classify him as a vice president of an insurance company.

Gladwell’s footnote shows he has drawn this curious statistic from a paper titled “Suicide and Creativity,” by a college professor named Mark Runco, published in 1998 in the journal Death Studies. Runco in turn cites a book, Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist.

To get her “five times” figure, Jamison explains in her book, she studied the lives of “all major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805.” She determined their “major” status by consulting old poetry anthologies. She decided there were 36—not 35, not 37, but 36—major poets, ranging from the well-known and era-defining (William Wordsworth) to the obscure and improbably named (John Bampfylde). Of the 36 poets, two committed suicide. (It’s not clear that these two can even be classified as poets, however: One was a physician by trade, and the other died at 17, probably too young to qualify for an occupational category.) Jamison reckoned that two out of 36, proportionally, is five times the suicide rate for the general population.

Voilà! A statistic is born.

This is thin soup. One wonders whether Gladwell bothered to trace the statistic back to its source. Jamison’s sample is clearly too small and peculiar to yield a reliable understanding of the suicide rate among poets, even 18th-century poets in the British Isles. Many people who spend a lot of time writing poetry are eccentric; the elevated suicide rate feels true, intuitively. But for Gladwell, as for so many consumers of social science, the intuition becomes real only if it’s quantified, even when any kind of useful quantification is implausible on its face.

Gladwell often builds his arguments from other peoples’ sketchy statistical manipulations and the far-fetched results he’s managed to cull from social-science journals. The data, taken uncritically, served to buttress anecdotes that were intended to dramatize some general truth about the human animal. What’s new in Talking to Strangers is that Gladwell doesn’t use these bits of pseudo-science to point to any larger lessons. It seems he’s no longer trying to explain much of anything. By book’s end, the best he can do is counsel a sense of realism about what we can and cannot know—a kind of epistemological modesty.  

“We will never know the whole truth,” he writes by way of summary. “We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” And again: “What is required of us is restraint and humility.”

I can’t imagine the typical Gladwell reader will be satisfied with this agnostic shrug. But Talking to Strangers can also be seen as an advance for the author—an unexpected step in the right direction. Rather than offering made-up rules and biases and effects, Gladwell has chosen to issue a plea, asking that we recognize how difficult it is for us to understand one another.

Of course, if Malcolm Gladwell had practiced epistemological humility for the past 20 years, he would have sold millions fewer books. But let’s pass over the irony. When you’re talking to millions of strangers, as Gladwell does, saying nothing in particular is better than telling them things that aren’t so. He may have embarked on an exciting new career.

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