Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kakutani on Gladwell

Michiku Kakutani of the Times reviews Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers. She finds it poorly reasoned -- my usual complaint about Gladwell's work.

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.

Gladwell highlights the claim of psychologist Anders Ericsson, that effort dominates ability (the 10,000 hours of practice thesis). My opinion on this can be found here, deep in the comments. The evidence is pretty strong in the case of science that native cognitive ability is a prerequisite for success. Practice (effort) is necessary also, but neither alone are sufficient.

...that quote sounds like it could be from Anders Ericsson's research on expertise. I disagree with his conclusions. His studies only show that effortful practice (about 10 years worth) is typically required to reach the highest level of capability. But he then confuses the logic and asserts that practice alone is *sufficient*, when in fact it is only necessary. You need raw ability *and* lengthy practice to reach expertise.

Of course it is appealing for most people to think that Ericsson's model is correct and that effort is all that is required to produce capability, but this claim is very controversial in the psychology community, and I think implausible to anyone who has been around gifted kids/adults.

The Roe study, combined with other studies showing the age stability of IQ (certainly once adulthood is reached), also serves to refute Ericsson. There's clearly some measurable quality, usually present already at an early age, that is advantageous for intellectual achievement. Most people don't have it.

Anders is refuted quite well in papers by leading psychologists like Sternberg (Yale) and in Eysenck's book Genius.

By the way, also contra Ericsson, there are many credible examples of supreme raw talent that didn't require development through 10 years of practice (e.g., Mozart).


Barry Kelly said...

Since Malcom deals explicitly with Mozart, it does make me wonder how closely Michiku read the book.

On IQ vs effort, there are strong cultural elements to IQ measurements that early effort and conformism can reinforce, leading to higher measured IQs.

Many (if not most) IQ tests measure a certain kind of thinking: the ability to hypothesize patterns in small samples of data using culturally normative criteria, such as edges and rotations in Platonic polyhedra, Western hierarchical ontologies for classifying plants and animals, etc.

Under this basis, one would expect that the more conformist and culturally cohesive a culture is, the higher its measured IQ; this seems to be borne out by Asian IQ distribution, as you expound repeatedly and at length on this blog.

Steve Hsu said...

"Under this basis, one would expect that the more conformist and culturally cohesive a culture is, the higher its measured IQ; this seems to be borne out by Asian IQ distribution..."

Uh, you might want to look into adoption studies that suggest this is largely heritable. Asian babies adopted into Western cultures show largely the same cognitive profile as those raised in Asia.

Tante Waileka said...

Careful! Your comment about adopted asian kids cognitive profiles mirroring asian raised kids smells like 'race memory' theory. hmmm. Actually, I cannot really complain about that as I have lived in Asia and also in Africa... and I agree!

Anonymous said...

Joel Spolsky weighs in:

This review captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year... an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it's Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story. Spare me.

Anonymous said...

Uh, why not prove/disprove Gladwell by putting in eight hours a day for 3.45 years @ something you don't already know, say, if you do not already play the piano, the piano?
If Gladwell is wrong you won't be at a professional level after 10,000 hours. I suspect you may very well be, and prove him correct.
The reason most people "don't have the ability" is that most people don't have the discipline, interest or drive.
There are incredibly stupid people in the world over who are very good at the one thing they do.
I should know, I'm one of them.

Steve Hsu said...

One data point would not disprove anyone's theory :-)

> The reason most people "don't have the
> ability" is that most people don't have the
> discipline, interest or drive.

From age 7 through college I was a competitive swimmer. I easily spent 10,000 hours training in this sport. As a kid I was regularly ranked in the top 3-5 in my state in several events (sprint freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke). In high school I was not quite at that level, although I graduated pretty young so it's not clear how I would have done if I had been the same age as my competitors. In high school we trained in the morning and afternoon and lifted weights -- it was quite intense. I still have dreams about practices, meets, etc. from those days.

Yet I am far from truly elite level and many other more talented swimmers could destroy me while training much less than I did. The point, which is obvious to anyone who has been a competitive athlete, is that ability matters a lot.

Any data which tries to relate hours of practice to success has to deal with the confound that people who have more ability tend to get positive reinforcement -- it's easier to motivate yourself to train if you are highly ranked and win all the time. People with little ability are likely to drop out of the activity, and in the data will appear as people who just didn't train enough to be good, according to the 10,000 hour theory.

It's shocking how hard it is for some people to grasp the difference between "necessary" and "sufficient" :-/

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