Posts Tagged ‘malcolm gladwell’


Friday, December 5th, 2014 | Books

How to we make snap decisions that are more accurate than well thought out evidence-based ones.

It should have been a quite short book because the answer is that we don’t. At least more often than we would like to think. Gladwell says that the biggest problem is that these conscious decisions are locked away from our conscious minds. But the problem is that they are often inaccurate.

This is something that Daniel Kahneman addresses in Thinking, Fast and Slow. You can develop excellent intuitive thinking. But only only certain circumstances, those being where you get immediate feedback. For example if an anaesthesiologist “gets a hunch” that something is wrong you should probably listen to them; if a oncologist or psychiatrist gets one, you should probably ignore then. That is because the anaesthesiologist will find out if their hunch is correct almost immediately, the others will not find out for months, maybe ever, and so never get to refine this decision-making process.

This struck me in Gladwell’s discussion of a marriage analyst who claims he can tell if a couple will divorce just based on overhearing a conversation in a restaurant. Realistically, he doesn’t know if he can actually do that. How could he? He’ll never get feedback on whether that couple did eventually break up or not.

His discussion of biases and prejudices was interesting. He discussed what he called the Warren Harding error. Harding “looked like a president” but when he got to the Whitehouse, it turned out he was rubbish at it. Conversely, the way orchestras started recruiting more women was to do blind auditions (where the musician would be behind a screen) to prevent people from judging them based on what they looked like, for example, do they have a pair of tits.

He also discussed a heart attack decision-tree adopted by Cook County Hospital. This simple decision tree was actually more accurate than doctors were at diagnosing whether people were having a heart attack. Gladwell claimed that people can be overloaded by having too much information and this actually impairs their decision making.

This is something that struck a chord with me. It is one of the things that we have found in my work in predicting sporting outcomes is that too much information can cloud your models. In fact it is pretty much what Nate Silver’s book The Signal and The Noise is about. And the answer is the same – do some logistic regression.



Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 | Books

I expressed some of my concerns about Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in my review of The Tipping Point. This included his analysis of the 10,000 hours rule (which is almost certainly wrong) which features in this book. It was still an interesting read however.

Outliers: The Story of Success looks both at some of the most successful people, but also how we think of success. He begins by talking about the Matthew effect. This is where sports have cut off date, say 1 January, and so kids born in January are competing against kids almost a year younger than them (kids born in December). The result is that kids in January look better, thus are put in a higher ability stream, get extra coaching and thus become world-class athletes.

According to the research Gladwell points to, this has a huge effect. Almost all sports stars are born in the first three months and almost none after September. When there is ability setting in school, September births outperform August births by a big margin too.

He then goes on to talk about the 10,000 hours rule, and finally goes on to talk about success is a result of opportunity. Take Bill Gates for example. At 13 years old, his high school got access to a computer system and so by the time he got to founding Microsoft in 1975 he had done more programming than basically anyone else in the world at his age.

This is where the book makes a great point. Gladwell uses the term opportunity, which is a combination of luck and privilege. Bill Gates worked incredibly hard, but he also had an opportunity that almost nobody else in the world had in that he spent his childhood, from 1968-1975, programming.

He is an excellent storyteller. I had the same kind of epiphany that I had when reading Michael Lewis’s Boomerang. They are both such good storytellers that they a) write excellent books and b) make us less critical because of it.

In summary, Outliers is a very engaging book, but that does not make it true. Gladwell is known for over-simplifying problems and he does it equally frequently in this book. If the message you take away is that success is more a product of opportunity than being a meritocracy of hard-work though, the book has probably been of some benefit.

As a final footnote, I had the audiobook edition and one of the things I found quite annoying was what happens with quotes. Gladwell reads it himself and goes into quotes without changing his voice or indicating it. So he will read something out and then say something like “says John Smith” and then you have to try and backtrack to where the quote starts from.


The Tipping Point

Saturday, November 1st, 2014 | Books

Malcolm Gladwell is a man who lies for money. Actually, I do not know that. In fact, if I was to guess, I would guess that he geniunely believes what he writes. I however, am far more skeptical about the claims he makes.

Take for example the 10,000 hours rule. This is based on a study done by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson however, does not agree with Gladwell. In fact in 2012 he wrote an entire paper on it entitled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists”. Gladwell’s response? To claim that Ericsson has wrongly interpreted his own study.

Approaching with a sensible amount of skepticism then, I took on Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

The first section talks about the law of the few. This explains how a few key individuals (such as connectors who are people that know everybody, and mavens who know lots of information on say supermarket prices) are the key to many things in our society. He cites the popular idea of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon where you can connect almost all actors to each other through Kevin Bacon.

He then talks about stickiness. How sticky in the message? He cites an example of a leaflet telling students to get a tetanus shot. It turned out that it did not matter how many horrible photos and descriptive language they used in the leaflets – the percentage of students actually going and getting the shots remained at 3%. Yet when they included a map and opening times of the on-campus health centre, this rose to 28%, even though all the students must have known where the health centre was.

In the third section, he goes on to talk about the power of context. Quoting the example of the drastic crime drop in New York City, he espouses the broken window theory. This is the idea that if you leave a broken window people will think nobody cares about the area and crime will increase, whereas if you fix it right away people will see people care and stop committing crime.

There are some strong rebuttals to what Gladwell writes however.

In the case of the law of the few, Gladwell cites a Milgram experiment where he had people send on packages to try and get to someone in a different city. He found that most packages made it, and most of them went through a few key individuals. Gladwell calls these people connectors. However, when Duncan Watts, author of Everything is Obvious, replicated the study, he found that connectors were not important.

In the case of the broken windows theory, this was one of the case studies in Freakonomics, in which the books shows that while everyone in New York was patting themselves on the back for their brilliant new policing strategy that was cutting crime, what had actually happened was that two decades ago they had legalised abortion, and now all the would-be criminals were simply never being born.