Rationality and ideology: Carrie McLaren’s reactions to Malcolm Gladwell

Carrie McLaren of Stay Free magazine had a self-described “rant” about Blink, the new book by science writer Malcolm Gladwell. I’ll give Carrie’s comments below, but my interest here isn’t so much in Gladwell’s book (which seems really cool) or Carrie’s specific comments (which are very thought-provoking, and she also points to this clarifying discussion by Gladwell and James Surowecki in Slate magazine).

Political ideology and attitudes toward technology

Right now, though, I’m more interested in what these exchanges reveal about the intersections of political ideology and attitudes toward technology. Historically, I think of technology as being on the side of liberals or leftists (as compared with conservatives who would want to stick with the old ways). Technology = “the Enlightenment” = leftism, desire for change, etc. Even into the 20th century, I’d see this connection, with big Soviet steel factories and New Deal dams. But then, in the 1960s and 1970s?, it seems to me there was a flip, in which technology is associated with atomic bombs, nuclear power, and other things that are more popular on the right than on the left. The environmentalist left has been more skepical about technological solutions. In another area of scientific debate, right-leaning scientists have embraced sociobiology and related ideas of bringing genetics into social policy.

But…perhaps recently things have switched back? In battles over the teaching of evolution, it is the liberals who are defending the scientific method and conservatives who are holding back, wanting to respect local culture rather than scientific universals. Similarly with carbon dioxide and climate change.

But, again, I’m not trying here to argue the merits of any of these issues but rather to ask whether it is almost a visceral thing, at any point in time, with one’s political allegiances being associated with a view of science.

Is Gladwell’s argument inherently anti-rational? Is anti-rationality conservative?

This is what I saw in Carrie’s posting on Gladwell. She was irritated by his use of scientific studies to support a sort of irrationalism–a favoring of quick judgments instead of more reasoned analyses. From this perspective, Gladwell’s apparent advocacy of unconscious decisions is a form of conservatism. (His position seems more nuanced to me, at least as evidenced in the Slate interview–where he suggests sending police out individually instead of in pairs so they won’t be emboldened to overreact–but perhaps Carrie’s take on it is correct in the sense that she is addressing the larger message of the book as it is perceived by the general public, rather than any specific attitudes of Gladwell.)

Rationality and ideology

As a larger issue, in the social sciences of recent decades, I think of belief in rationality and “rational choice modeling” as conservative, both in the sense that many of the researchers in this area are politically conservative and in the sense that rationality is somehow associated with “cold-hearted” or conservative attitudes on cost-benefit analyses. But at the same time, quantitative empirical work has been associated with left-leaning views–think of Brown v. Board of Education, or studies of income and health disparities. There’s a tension here, because in the social sciences, the people who can understand the technical details of empirical statistical work are the ones who can understand rational choice modeling (and vice versa). So I see all this stuff and keep getting bounced back and forth.

(I’m sure lots has been written about this–these ideas are related to a lot of stuff that Albert Hirschman has written on–and I’d appreciate relevant references, of course. Especially to empirical studies on the topic.)

Carrie’s words

OK, now, as promised, here are Carrie’s comments:

I hope you’ll pardon me while I rant for a minute. [Just to be clear: that’s Carrie ranting, not me!] New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) has a new book out, BLINK, that has become the talk of the town, even prompting one reviewer — Farhad Manjoo of Salon — to state that, “You won’t find a reader who doesn’t at least like Gladwell” and “There’s just no arguing with Gladwell.”

I’d like to know what planet Mr. Manjoo is living on; Gladwell’s work ALWAYS makes people want to argue. As I’ve written here before, his writing follows a simple formula: put forth a counterintuitive argument, then cleverly select points that advance this claim while ignoring and obscuring those that don’t.

I haven’t read the book in question, so you can take this all with a grain of salt, but the premise alone is preposterous: Gladwell claims that “rapid cognition”–“the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye”–is underappreciated. As Gladwell writes, “I think the Rapid Cognition Model needs to be taken far more seriously–that it’s smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit for.”

Oh, really? What about the advertising industry, which does nothing if not appreciate humanity’s ability to make unconscious, split-second decisions (and profit from them). Every year, marketers pour billions of dollars into researching and exploiting “blink.”

What about the recent election of a president who acted on “gut instinct” over a man noted for careful deliberation? What about the widespread assumption that it’s important to make a good first impression… or, for that matter, the belief in love at first sight?

Gladwell devotes a chunk of his book to the work of the John Gottman, who videotapes couples and says that within 15 minutes he can tell with 90 percent accuracy whether the couple will be married 15 years later. According to Gladwell, Gottman’s abilities illustrate the power of blink. But Gottman’s work could just as well illustrate the power of careful, deliberative analysis. I first heard about the Gottman Institute on NPR’s This American Life; in that story, Gottman discussed how he acquired his ability to read couples through extensive trial and error. It took him over a decade of watching and analyzing to get to a point where he figured things out quickly. It seems to me that this gets to the heart of the problem with touting blink: at least a solid part of its strength is dependent on the kind of analysis that Gladwell suggests is overrated.

The very reason that Gottman’s work interests us in the first place is because it’s so unusual, the exception to the rule. The truth is that most of us aren’t very good at knowing whether our own relationships will last, let alone those of our peers. Yet Gladwell maintains that the power of blink is democratic, as useful for lay persons as experts. If that’s the case, why is the divorce rate for people who fall in love at first sight no better than those who trod a slow-moving path?

It’s also really hard to swallow Gladwell’s love of blink in light of its role in the social stereotypes that play against the female, dark-skinned, disabled, or physically unattractive among us. Gladwell and his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki debate this point in an enlightening Slate article. )

To make his case, Gladwell discusses the hiring practices of top orchestras. For years, such orchestras, which conducted open auditions, overwhelmingly selected male performers. But in the 1980s, as Gladwell writes, orchestras “started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately — immediately! — orchestras started hiring women.”

Might this indicate that relying on quick impressions isn’t such a good thing? After all, it suggests that committee members who had relied on first impressions were likely to assume a female player wasn’t very good. Gladwell’s retort: people rely on their biases regardless of how quickly they make a decision. The problem, he suggests, is bias, not the style (or speed) of decision-making. To bolster his point, he sites the overwhelming presence of tall men heading up corporations. Even very deliberate decisions, he points out, reflect bias.

But this reasoning is ridiculous. The fact that reasoned decisions often reflect bias doesn’t mean that reasoning can’t help minimize it. When you eliminate reasoning and deliberation, you eliminate even the chance of countering biased first impressions.

Gladwell’s solution is no solution at all: “We can put up the equivalent of screens. We can find ways of editing out nonessential information.” When you consider that we form prejudices based on a person’s name, skin color, voice, height, gender, medical history, and appearance, the equivalent of screens would be a soundproof, windowless blackbox.

I’m not saying Gladwell is a bad writer, or that none of his points have merit. I think his skills lie precisely where Farhad Manjoo denies them: in getting readers to argue and discuss. He’s also good at weaving engaging narratives. But, for me, his penchant for overselling arguments–and for concealing significant counterpoints–overshadows his obvious talents.

Gladwell’s thesis would be more accurate in stating that split-second decision-making isn’t worthless — that it can at times be channeled effectively, and that knowing when to do so is key. But that argument sounds a lot less sexy. At any rate, it wouldn’t make for a Malcolm Gladwell book. –CM

P.S. Since I know Carrie McLaren and I don’t know Malcolm Gladwell, I’m referring to them as “Carrie” and “Gladwell”, since that seems right. Just in case you were wondering why I was inconsistent with the first and last names.

9 thoughts on “Rationality and ideology: Carrie McLaren’s reactions to Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Andrew: For some empirical studies you might want to take a look at the book, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, by Gerd Gigerenzer et al.

    As an aside, I've been a bit suspicious of Meehl's comparison of statistical and clinical judgment, because statistical analyses always have access to outcomes, while judges and clinicians rarely if ever get information fed back on the accuracy of their decisions. So Gottman's ability to make accurate judgments seems quite reasonable to me.

  2. An article appeared in the WSJ a couple of months ago that outlined the results of a recent psychology study aimed at probing altruism (unfortunately I don't have the exact reference). They used extensions of the prisoner's dilemma on test subjects. The article suggested that people are inclined to act as good Samaritans out of fear of reproach from others within their group. Paul Rubin's Darwinian Politics explores the theory a little further.

    It's funny to read Exit, Voice and Loyalty after having read Lowenstein's Origins of the Crash.

  3. MDM,

    That's an interesting criticism of the statistical vs. clinical judgment literature. My impression was that the clinical judges would have had the opportunity to retrospect and validate, but they never got around to doing it. The necessity of formal feedback is a key advantage of the "statistical judgment" approach.


    You might be interested in this paper by Fehr and Gachter. There's something about all this evolutionary psychology stuff that rings false to me. In my own life I don't think of people in terms of how many genes they share with me. So I'm skeptical of these research endeavors to "explain" why we should be nice to people other than our cousins. People are people. My relatives aren't so different from everybody else.

    But I certainly see the relevance of the "political science" angle of this research. Psychologically, the distinction between in-group and out-group seems real to me.

  4. You might be interested in reading Ullica Segerstråle's book "Defenders of the Faith". She's a sociologist who has watched and analysed the sociobiology debates, and in the book she tries to tease apart the reasons why they happened, and what it tells us about the way science evolves. She discusses the influence if ideology – ironically, most of the scientists on both sides of the debate would characterise themselves as left-leaning.

    paulse: I can't comment on what psychologists are saying, but from the perspective of evolutionary biology, individuals don't need to know how related they are towards individuals that they are acting with. It's enough that the fitness gain of a recipient is correlated with relatedness. These ideas have even been used for looking at plant "behaviour".


  5. AG: I think of belief in rationality and "rational choice modeling" as conservative.

    DF: I agree. I think the same instinct that leads someone to believe in a male god leads to worshipping formal axioms.

    Historically, there have been three famous opponents to rational choice theory (von Neumann, Morgenstern, Savage): Maurice Allais, Daniel Ellsberg and Lola Lopes. I don't think it's a coincidence that the three main opponents to expected utility theory map on to three salient groups of opponents to the war in Iraq (French, women, Ellsberg).

    Also, the debate between the US and European Union about the precautionary principle corresponds to the debate between rational choice defenders and Allais/Ellsberg/Lopes.

    And John Graham, the most powerful practitioner of rational choice theory (he's the head of OIRA, the branch of OMB that decides whether proposed regulations are "cost-effective") is a corporate cheerleader who dresses rightwing propanganda as "rational analysis."

    It boils down to whether you see YANG (male/analytic/logical) as superior to YIN( female/intuitive/holistic) or whether you see them as complementary modes of understanding the world.

  6. DF,

    The Neumman connection is interesting to me, partly because I've never read a biography of him but he's an important minor character in several fascinating biographies that I have read (Ulam's autobiography, Feynman's memoirs, and the biography of Nash). I've never had a clear sense of what Neumann was like. Everybody seemed to like and admire him, but he always seemed like an annoying character in these books.

    Regarding John Graham–I agree with some of his stuff and disagree with others–actually, I have collaborated with a colleague of his at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. I've never met him, but from his writings I wouldn't have thought of him as "right-wing," more as "conservative."

    More generally, I don't quite buy the split of male/analytical/logical vs. female/intuitive/holistic. But perhaps you're being ironic here, I can't tell. Irony is notoriously difficult to detect in text (as opposed to spoken words).

  7. Andrew,

    "There's something about all this evolutionary psychology stuff that rings false to me. In my own life I don't think of people in terms of how many genes they share with me. So I'm skeptical of these research endeavors to "explain" why we should be nice to people other than our cousins. People are people. My relatives aren't so different from everybody else."

    You're mistaking causation for mechanism. I know _for a fact_ that I'm nicer to my kids than I am to the members of the class "humanity" on average. This is not the result of a conscious decision on my part to spread my genes. Rather, billions of years of evolution have developed hormonal systems that make me trend in that direction, with one of the ultimate effects being a likely increase in the representation of my genes in the universe. People are _not_ people, we discriminate constantly on the systemic, conscious and hormonal levels.

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