Malcolm Gladwell's Stickiness ProblemS

It's tough out there for science writers following in Malcolm Gladwell's footsteps. Not because he's so good, but because he's so wrong. Here's a rant by author Jeff Wise, republished from Psychology Today, on undoing Gladwell's damage to the facts.

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times's top 10 bestsellers since his first book, Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell's book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author "unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and... occasionally blunders into spectacular failures."

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I've discovered, isn't just that Gladwell is wrong. It's that his formulations are so darn sticky.

I stumbled upon this realization when, last year, I began writing my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. In the course of my research I delved into all the major manifestations of the emotion, including the phenomenon of athletes choking on the playing field. Gladwell, I already knew, had famously dealt with the subject in a 2000 New Yorker article entitled "The Art of Failure." He summed up the topic with breathtaking concision. Choking, he declared, is the opposite of panic. "Choking is about thinking too much," he wrote. "Panic is about thinking too little."

It was the epitome of a Gladwellian idea: counterintuitive, startling, yet immediately graspable. In other words, sticky — the supreme attribute for a successful meme. And thus it spread. Read anything about choking in the popular press these days and you'll likely get the Gladwell line. Here's Jonah Lehrer, writing in his book How We Decide: "Choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much." (Italics his.) And here's John Paul Newport, writing this February in the Wall Street Journal: "Choking... is essentially the opposite of panic."

The only problem is that, from a neuroscientific perspective, Gladwell's "choking is the opposite of panic" doesn't make any sense. It's like saying "dogs are the opposite of cats" — a stimulating proposition, perhaps, but logically unparsable.

Meanwhile, as it happens, a great deal of fascinating research has gone into figuring out how choking actually works. The phenomenon is an expression of a specifically social kind of fear, a variety of performance anxiety related to stage fright, panic attacks, and the "shy bladder" syndrome familiar to men at airport urinals. It has nothing to do with a negation or undersupply of panic.

Okay, so who cares? If half the United States is walking around with the erroneous notion that they are in possession of a really nifty insight into the nature of choking, so be it. No harm, no foul. But some bogus memes are less innocent.

One of the chapters in Gladwell's second book, Blink, concerns the work of the University of California psychologist Paul Ekman, a man who, according to Gladwell, has mastered the secret of lie detection. Thanks to a combination of innate skill and scientific savvy, Ekman has supposedly trained himself to detect fleeting "micro-expressions" on a liar's face and so can determine their true emotional state with stunning accuracy.

It was the best chapter of the book, maybe the best chapter Gladwell has ever written. When Universal Studios paid $1 million for the movie rights to Blink, this was the part they really wanted; when the deal was inked, the studio announced that Steven Gaghan was attached to the project to write and direct, and Leonardo DiCaprio would star as an Ekman-like character. That film is still gestating, but meanwhile the Gladwell/Ekman juggernaut has already steamrollered across the public consciousness through the Fox TV show Lie to Me, currently in its second season. In the show, Tim Roth stars as Dr. Cal Lightman, the protagonist with Ekman-type powers. The real Ekman serves as a script adviser to the show and writes about each episode on his blog.

The chapter's most profound impact played out not on the screen but in the real world, when the Department of Homeland Security enlisted Ekman, soon after Blink's publication, to help implement a project to detect would-be terrorists in airports around the country. Called "Screening Passengers by Observation Technique," or SPOT, the program debuted in December, 2005. By 2008, TSA officers were pulling aside nearly 100,000 passengers a year for screening. (Of those, fewer than one percent were eventually arrested, and the TSA won't say how many were convicted.)

You might think, given Ekman's cultural ubiquity, that his discoveries on the subject of lying have laid the groundwork for a whole sub-field of research psychology. On the contrary. In fact, it has been well established by peer-reviewed studies that, Ekman's claims notwithstanding, no person can reliably tell whether or not another human being is lying simply by looking at them. "It's hokum," says Yale psychologist Charles A. Morgan III.

So SPOT, it turns out, was a $3-million-a-year waste of taxpayer money. So "Lie to Me" is scarcely more scientifically grounded than Ghost Whisperer. Well, okay. Dumb TV shows and wasteful government programs are nothing new. What's really disturbing, though, is that once Gladwell had granted Ekman his intellectual seal of approval, no one in the popular media was willing or able to point out that the good professor's claims were spurious.

For four years.

That's the problem of Gladwell in a nutshell. He's masterful at brewing up memes so potent that they travel far beyond the realm of where the mere modest truth would go. They spread. And they stick. And having stuck, they proceed to affect the decisions that people make, the policies they implement, the laws that they pass. A normal person, when he is wrong, adds a little drop of erroneousness in the great sea of human conversation. Gladwell, when he is wrong, creates a tsunami of wrong.

And it just goes on and on.