By Sam Rosenthal

Gladwellian Thinking

There are a certain number of inevitabilities in new releases from a popular creator. When Apple unveils a new product, Internet commentators will always complain that it is not revolutionary, their stock value will always plummet, and a few weeks later the company will always announce a record number of sales (slowly raising their stock value once again). 

Over in the literary world, when Malcolm Gladwell releases a new book, my Twitter timeline will always be flooded with criticism of his style, it will always sit near the top of the bestsellers list, and I will always read it. The notion that game designers tend to dislike Gladwell's writing style, which favors anecdotal over empirical evidence, should come as no surprise. As game designers we enjoy distilling complex systems down to their minute details, and most of us are left with a natural aversion to generalizations. That said, when discussing Gladwell's books it is important to remember that the world is not entirely comprised of game designers and academics.

Malcolm Gladwell is an extraordinarily gifted pop psychology writer. He is not a scientist, nor does he claim to be. In describing his latest book, he says, 

"Books like David and Goliath combine narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently."

The chief reason I read Gladwell's books is because they are interesting thought experiments written to challenge a widespread belief, while planting a seed for further exploration on a particular topic. I believe it is always healthy to have our beliefs challenged, and Gladwell has made his career writing for people who think similarly.

His critics constantly chastise his prioritization of anecdote over data. Gladwell's work is hardly devoid of evidence (anyone who read Outliers will recall its chart filled chapter on mean ages of hockey players), but the way he addresses evidence is generally in the form of casual citation. So and so performed this study, he might say, giving us a resource to look further into the matter should we choose before summarizing the study's conclusions. An academic in the field Gladwell is talking about would probably be better off reading one of the studies he cites in the first place, but there is good reason his books top the best seller lists while academic journals do not, and it is not simply because of the lack of data.

Now for an anecdote of my own. Early in my time at USC I took a class on the history of Los Angeles. The class was discussing an assigned novel and textbook on the Watts Riots, and the TA asked which source we found more effective in portraying the event. The question was obviously loaded, designed to start a discussion on the positives and negatives of each source until the students came to the conclusion that both had merit and were equally valuable. I raised my hand and said, "the novel was  more effective."

The question was not about which source more accurately described the riots, it was about each portrayal's general effectiveness. While the textbook provided a plethora of dates, important figures, and key events, the novel taught me how it felt to be there. Feel is more memorable than fact, and the novel is the sole reason I can recall the empty details cited in the textbook. It energized them.

Gladwell's style more closely resembles the novel than the textbook. Through beautifully constructed sequences of stories, he encourages us to view his subject with a different lens. Rarely does he prove anything at all, but definitive proof is never the goal of a storyteller. He understands this perfectly:

"Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights."

I was understandably surprised then, to read the Wall Street Journal's review of David and Goliath claim in its headline that "Malcolm Gladwell too often presents as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior." Actually, he does quite the opposite! Malcolm Gladwell presents intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior. Period.

He gets into trouble when his musings are read as fact, and it does not help that he begins most of his books with a generalization stating that most thinking about the said topic is wrong. David and Goliath's entire prelude to this generalization is a classic Gladwellian dissection of a likely fictitious Bible story, which is a hell of a hook, but leaves the reader with a strange impression regarding his purpose.

Despite his tendency toward hyperbole that further encourages the academic community's dismissal of his work, Gladwell's theories have inspired some exceptionally interesting discussion. When the Asiana Airline crashed in San Francisco last July, his chapter of Outliers discussing the culture surrounding Korean pilots was commonly cited. Soon after, we were treated to this incredible critique. Gladwell's musings are as opinionated as they are popular, and inspiring fascinating debate is yet another one of their inevitabilities.

The sheer amount of writing on the internet dedicated to lamenting, praising, or discussing Gladwell's work is proof enough that he is achieving his goal. We ARE talking about the world through a different a lens, after all. Gladwell's most vocal critics may require more evidence to see the world through his lens, but that is perfectly alright will him. He never fought for appeal by touting irrefutable proofs, just as Apple never fought for appeal by touting technical specifications. In fact, both Gladwell and Apple appeal to their respective audiences through a surprisingly similar message: think different.