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Research chat: Dan Ariely and Malcolm Gladwell on writing about social science

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Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell have both made significant contributions to the public’s understanding of social science research. Gladwell’s books include The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers; Ariely’s titles include Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.

In 2011, Ariely interviewed Gladwell as part of his “Arming the Donkeys” podcast series, where they discussed, among other things, the challenges of translating and representing academic research for a mass audience. With Professor Ariely’s permission, we’ve transcribed part of their rich conversation. And you can hear the audio of the full podcast.

Journalist’s Resource continues to build a collection of interviews and conversations — a series we’re calling research chats — about the intersection of academic scholarship and journalism.

The following is an edited excerpt:

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Dan Ariely: I guess first I wanted to just thank you for promoting social science.

Malcolm Gladwell: No, it’s my pleasure.

Ariely: I thought about it on the flight, what you’ve done to popularize social science — it’s amazing. Of course, your books have been very successful and so many other people have done it since. And I think there was a sense in which I don’t think anybody in the field realized that our stuff could become interesting until….

Gladwell: Really? You think that that’s true, that there was that little confidence in the kind of ability to transcend academia?

Ariely: They listened and they enjoyed it, but I think that before that there was no sense of demand. I think there was a question of if I got somebody to come and listen, they were impressed.

Gladwell: I think TED has a lot to do with this phenomenon, as well, in fact much more than me. They have opened up peoples’ eyes.

Ariely: So the first thing I want to ask you is: How do you pick your topics?

Gladwell: I don’t really know — I mean, desperation? … I see things and I collect them, and I think they might be interesting. But there’s no theory or system. I go to the library sometimes, and I just sort of roam around; or I go on the databases and I just type in things at random, or I get articles and read through the bibliography…. But there’s no rhyme or reason. Someone will say something to me interesting, and I’ll follow up on it or something. To be a writer I think you’re kind of constitutionally disposed toward optimism.

….

Ariely: So this is the dilemma that I have a lot, which is: How much of the nuances of the research to get into? … So to describe research, you know we have lots of papers that show the main effect, and [there are] always lots of papers that show the bounding conditions and cases. And it becomes incredible complex.

Gladwell: It does.

Ariely: And science doesn’t understand how things work, yet. And there’s a question of how you decide what’s central to the story and what to leave out? What nuances do you leave out?

Gladwell: That is obviously something that I wrestle with constantly. Because there is no way in the books that I do or the articles I write for The New Yorker to reflect the full complexity of the underlying academic data. It can’t be done. So what you try and do is either represent the best-supported position, or make it clear that what you’re arguing is an interpretation of the data and there might be others. Or you use this in the service of a larger idea.

So, for example, in Outliers when I talk about … the summer learning effect. So there’s an enormous amount of data on that. Some shows a really strong summer learning effect; some shows not as strong. To an academic, how strong that effect is, is of enormous importance. To me in that story, [it’s] not important. What we’re really interested in is communicating the idea that there are consequences to the summer vacation for a kid who is on the bottom end of the scale. How large those consequences are, I don’t know. But it’s significant. It’s worth talking about. And as a guide to a school system like the KIPP system, trying to raise the level, it’s invaluable. It says, “If we’re going to do an extra three weeks of school in the summer, it’s going to have a material impact on the outcomes for these kids.” So from that standpoint it’s sufficient. I don’t have to go into the weeds.

Ariely: I agree. That’s probably the strongest example of any data we have in education. And what’s also the case is that we don’t have these ordinary interactions. So the effect is either big or medium or not-so-big, but there are no cases where it reverses. And that makes it easier….

Gladwell: I picked an easy example.

Ariely: I think that the hard question is: What happens when the effect goes under some conditions the other way around? There are two things: There’s a question of how do you present the interactions; and there’s another question of what do you do with variance. So let’s say that you have an experiment that works very well and very consistently, and explains 20 percent of the variance. Now, it’s a beautiful thing to explain 20 percent of the variance — we would all be happy to do it — but it’s only 20 percent. It’s very hard I think to describe something that leaves people in understanding that this is a really important effect, but that there’s more unknown than known after this.

Gladwell: And you’re right, because you can only tell the story about the part that’s known. I think people are more — readers are — a good deal more sophisticated than we give them credit for. I don’t think anyone reads a book like yours or a book like mine or a book like Freakonomics and thinks that what we’re talking about explains everything.

I think what they’re doing is they are plugging this new knowledge into their existing explanatory system. So they already have an explanatory system that has many variables, that has a kind of lay-notion of variance attached to it…. So in Tipping Point, [there’s] a discussion of crime in New York. I don’t think many readers came away from that thinking, “Oh, crime dropped in New York just because they cleaned the graffiti off the subway.” But I think what people did is they said, “Oh, I need to add that variable into my lay-account of what happened in New York.” I think that’s an appropriate [response]. That’s how they read that. When you tell the story, you’re taking for granted that they have an existing set of variables in their head, and you’re just adding to it.

Ariely: So I think that with crime in New York, it’s clear that people have lots of lay-theories, and also real theories.

Gladwell: Which are not false, they’re very useful. But there just happen to be three or four other theories that they need to take into consideration.

Ariely: But when you write or I write, I don’t feel that you or I make it explicit that [we’re saying],“I’m going to tell you a story about the small part of the picture.” And part of it I think, is the question of: What’s a good story? It’s very hard to tell a good story [that says], “I’ll tell you a story and at the end of the day I’ll tell you it explains 20 percent of….”

Gladwell: This is an interesting topic. But it goes to the issue of: What do people do with the things they read in books such as this? And my working assumption is that what they do is they talk about it. The reason people read a book like, books like ours — as opposed to novels — is that books like ours are fodder for continued thought and conversation. And I hear this all the time from readers: “I talk about this with my family, we have arguments about this.” And that makes me feel that it’s OK to do, to tell stories the way we do, because like I said, the experience doesn’t end on the final page. It is feeding into an ongoing conversation that people have about their lives.

Ariely: But you would like people to take this into account when school programs are designed.

Gladwell:  Yes. Like I said, I would like that to be added to the conversation. So to go back to Outliers, the discussion of birthday effects in school years. That’s a thing where — does being a December baby in a January cut-off year mean you’ll never go to college? No. But, why is it important to bring up? Well, it’s this much of the story, but it’s such a dumb, obvious, easy thing to fix. Of all the things we can do to get a 10 percent bump, it’s not going to cost us anything. We could rearrange classes [by age] in elementary schools…. I had three classes in each grade. It would have been so easy to do:  January, April, May. So that’s why you bring it up. You bring it up and you place perhaps undue — what might seem like undue — importance to it. Because it ought to be at the top of the list of things to do….

Ariely: I feel, by the way, like parents in my kids’ school are talking about this in terms of the logic of leaving a kid a year behind in kindergarten. Should they go to first grade or not?

Gladwell: Yes, there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of over-invested upper-middle-class parents have taken this to heart in a way that might be distressing.

Ariely: So the variance I think is one thing. And what about different nuances. Places where the results go the other way? So we have this view of what’s the main effect, and then we have these expected interactions in some odd cases.

Gladwell: So there are these kind of polarized issues in social science. And the one that I touch on in Blink — the polarized issue I touch on there — is probably the race stuff, the racial prejudice stuff. In Outliers the polarized stuff I touch on is the IQ stuff. And there are IQ fundamentalists out there. You know like [Harvard psychology professor Steven] Pinker, who in a kind of hostile way reviewed What the Dog Saw. You know, am I ever going to see eye-to-eye with Pinker? No. And at a certain point I’m bringing my own values and perspectives to bear on my interpretations of this literature. And I am placing my bets with the [University of Michigan professor Richard] Nisbetts of the world over the Pinkers of the world. And I feel comfortable doing that. And if you are a die-hard IQ fundamentalist, you’re not going to like that part of my book, and I’m fine with that. You know, I don’t pretend that this is…. There’s always points in social science, or in any kind of science — no, not any kind of science — but particularly in social science where you take a stand on the basis of your values.

Ariely: This is also in physics. You just don’t see it. It’s only when you get closer that you realize how many “stands” there are. So when you learn this stuff do you mostly learn from books and papers, do you talk to people, do you go to classes?

Gladwell:  I go to talk to professors and I read lots of literature. I mean it depends on the story and how much of…. Sometimes the literature is actually very beautifully done and very easy to follow. And sometimes it’s opaque and I have to call them up and ask them what such-and-such means.

Ariely: Did you ever have a topic that you tried to delve into and you decided that the literature was just too opaque?

Gladwell: Too complex? Yes, I mean, all the time. I’m just trying to think of a good example. I mean, you are limited in a sense that you can only write about things that you can explain for a lay-audience. This is one of the things that academics sometimes fail to grasp about popular writing. Sometimes there are, I feel there is, some friction between me and the academic world; not a lot, but there’s a little bit sometimes. Part of it is that I don’t think they understand the limitations of the form. There’s almost no occasion when they are writing for their own audience where they can’t tackle a topic because of the difficulty explaining it. Someone’s always going to be able to follow, or some huge percentage of their audience is always going to be able to follow it…. It’s a small audience, but that’s the beauty of academic work.

Whereas I literally cannot discuss something that my audience cannot understand. I can’t do it, I lose them, they’re gone … and then I’ve failed. So that limits the way I which I talk about —  not hugely or dangerously — but it limits. It means I will tend to stress some things sometimes more than others. And that is, you know, this is — to use to use my favorite quotation from The Godfather — as Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” Right? You know, you accept when you take a position in a certain kind of a field … the limitations of it, and that’s one of them.

….

Ariely: In the process of trying to write things that influence peoples’ minds, what have you learned about people? What have you learned about the psychology of people?

Gladwell: I’ve learned that if you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded — far more open-minded than I would’ve thought. Or to put it in a more sophisticated way: People are information-rich and theory-poor. If you can give them a way of organizing their experience, then their minds are wide open. Which I would not have not have necessarily thought. And if you can frame questions appropriately you can overcome all kinds of ideological — what you would have thought of — as ideological constraints. So I’ve been continuously surprised. I always thought my book, because I am a political liberal, that my books would have heavily liberal audiences. But in fact they don’t….

Ariely: But they are also not very liberal books. Do you read them as being liberal?

Gladwell: I read them as liberal. But this is another case of: How I read my books is irrelevant to how they are read.

Ariely: But it’s interesting that you think it’s the theory, not the data. That I think is fascinating. That it’s about the organizing principles.

Gladwell: It’s about the principles. The books always give people these kind of broader theories, because that’s what they go to first. Then they’ll fill in the gap with the data. But they want some way of reorganizing their view of things. That’s what potent.

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