Tag Archives: malcolm-gladwell

How Trends Actually Spread; or, Six Degrees but No Connectors

The small sample size of Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment means that the theory of ‘six degrees of separation’ and the conclusion drawn from it–primarily, the Influential’s theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point–could be deeply flawed. That was the starting point for Duncan Watts‘ research that led him to say “the Tipping Point is toast”.

So to research how ideas and trends spread virally, Watts (who is author of Everything is Obvious, principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research (he directs their Human Social Dynamics group), and founding director of Columbia University’s Collective Dynamics Group) ran large-scale reproductions of the small world experiment and hundreds of computer simulations that brought forward two conclusions: the six degrees of separation theory is correct, but there is no evidence for super-connected ‘trend gatekeepers’ (such as Gladwell’s ‘Connectors’):

But Watts, for one, didn’t think the gatekeeper model was true. It certainly didn’t match what he’d found studying networks. So he decided to test it in the real world by remounting the Milgram experiment on a massive scale. In 2001, Watts used a Web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that “hubs”–highly connected people–weren’t crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target. […]

[His computer simulation] results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

I can’t help but find it somewhat ironic that, written almost four years ago, this argument hasn’t really gained much traction and Gladwell’s ideas are still discussed ad nauseam.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Public Speaking Secrets

After discovering that he was to share a double bill with the “famously good” public speaker Malcolm Gladwell, Gideon Rachman decided to use the experience to learn how to improve his own speaking abilities.

In his write-up of the experience, Rachman discusses the lessons he learnt from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘public speaking secrets’:

The first lesson came from simply looking at the programme. The photo of me was unexceptional […] Gladwell’s photo was very different. It was taken from a distance and showed off his magnificent Einstein-like Afro – it said, here is a mad genius. […] But there are other things he does that might be easier to emulate.

First, he is a master of the “look no hands” style of speaking. He just stands up there, with a button mike and talks – and it all sounds very spontaneous, with little asides and jokes, and messages tailored to his […] audience. Second, he tells stories – there are theories attached to the stories – but the bulk of the talk is made up of charming anecdotes to illustrate rather simple themes. […]

So how does Gladwell do it? […] He answered – “I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them”.

It occurred to me afterwards that Gladwell’s success as a speaker illustrates one of his homespun themes – hard work pays off. But he has also made an important realisation. He is not giving a speech or a lecture – he is giving a performance. And like any good actor, he knows that you have to learn your lines.

Why Pinker and Gladwell Disagree

If you didn’t already know, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his best essays as published in The New Yorker (all of which are available on his site for free, if you prefer to read them there).

Since its publication, journalists and scientists have been criticising Gladwell over what they perceive as his lack of scientific integrity (in preferring folk wisdom and over-simplifications than fully-researched science journalism).

The most high profile of these criticisms, and the one that seems to have struck a nerve with Gladwell, comes from cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker.

If you want to read more about these criticisms, Seed summarises many of them in an article that looks evenly at the various disagreements and looks at how, in popular science writing, “where statistical rigor is actually applied, it takes the discussion to a level of abstraction that is not useful to the average reader”.

However I felt the most concise and unbiased conclusion comes from Mind Hacks:

While the two writers spar over the details, the subtext is that Pinker is a proponent of IQ being a reliable predictor of success with a significant genetic influence (see The Blank Slate) whereas Gladwell has argued that success is largely a combination of practice plus being in the right place at the right time (see Outliers).

Obviously these two approaches to explaining success don’t sit well with each other, hence, in part, the disagreement.

Gladwell on Education, Hiring, Journalism

I haven’t read (m)any of Malcolm Gladwell‘s articles in the past 6 months as they’re all, well, a bit homogeneous. Plus, if there are any fascinating revelations that I really should hear about I’ll undoubtedly discover them (in a much-condensed form) in many other places rehashing his content.

This interview with Malcolm Gladwell—where he discusses education, hiring and journalism—is typically Gladwellian and worth your time, however.

On education:

If I were [the United States Secretary of Education], I’d think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. […] It’s not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they’re highly functional in certain areas. So I’ve always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other.

On teaching and hiring practises:

Certain kinds of predictions are impossible. If you want to find out if someone can do the job, you have to let them do the job. We should be experimenting with people too. I feel very strongly about the notion that if you want to find the best teachers, you let everybody into the profession, monitor them for two years, and then pick the 10% that are the best. That’s how you do it, and that’s completely the opposite of the way we do it now. Right now we’re acting out a fiction, which is that we can tell whether someone’s good at this enormously complex thing called teaching before they’ve ever taught.

And the single piece of advice he would offer to young journalists?

The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. […] Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

I particularly like that penultimate sentence: The role of the generalist is diminishing. It puts me in mind of this previous post on the end of the polymath and the downside of scientific progress (that I’ve just updated to include a link to the quoted post).

via @sgourley

Deliberate Practice Breeds Genius

I initially thought that this was just going to be another superfluous variation on the 10,000 hours theme (from Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers).

OK, so while it actually is that, David Brooks’ look at how to forge modern creative genius is still fairly interesting.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

I particularly liked this anecdote:

According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

An interesting learning method… reverse engineering something you consider excellent or perfect, reconstructing it yourself and finally examining the two end products.