Malcolm Gladwell on the secret power of the underdog

The bestselling author talks to Maclean's about his big new idea

Mike Coppola / Getty Images for The New Yorker

Raised in Elmira, Ont., and currently a high-profile staff writer at The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell is also a mega-selling author. Combining graceful writing, his own reporting and academic research, as well as anecdotal evidence, Gladwell’s books connect the dots in startling, often counterintuitive ways to create novel theories of familiar phenomena in The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. His latest book, David and Goliath, examines why the underdog wins so often, and some of the morally troubling issues that arise in his or her struggles.

Q: David and Goliath is a very enjoyable book, partly because of our deep-seated instinct to cheer for the underdog. Why we do that?

A: Because it makes the world seem more just, or at least, it makes the world seem more hopeful, because, if the favourite always won, then there’s no point, right? There’d be no point in fighting. We’re instinctively thinking of future situations where we will be outmanned and we want to make sure we still have some kind of chance.

Q: Whom we see as the underdog, though, isn’t always the underdog. Take the David and Goliath story: David has the distance weapon, a slingshot, so in what way is the lumbering Goliath the favourite?

A: We do sort of stack the deck. One of the points I wanted to make was that our kind of instinctive ideas about what is an advantage and what isn’t are often wrong. With David and Goliath, what guided our understanding was our sense that being big and tall and strong and well-armed was always more advantageous than being audacious, fast-moving and lightly armed. But, in fact, there’s no reason why. Big and strong and well-armed is not always best. That’s just our default position, and it’s an erroneous one.

Q: One of the advantages of the supposedly powerless, you write, is a sense of having nothing to lose. For some of those you profile, such as physician Emil Freireich, who aggressively fought childhood leukemia even when his colleagues accused him of being inhumane, it seems more a matter knowing what real loss is, and that losing your reputation doesn’t kill you.

A: Yeah, it’s some combination of those two things: nothing to lose and indifference to people’s opinion when you’ve overcome worse than that. In the story about the girls’ basketball team, coach Vivek Ranadive really does have nothing to lose, in the sense that his self-image, and the self-image of his team—12-year-old Silicon Valley girls who dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists—is not tied up in basketball and their basketball reputation. More important, they know for a fact that, if they play basketball the normal way, they will lose every game. So that’s a classic nothing-to-lose situation. You’re right, though: Freireich is slightly different, though equally powerful. Having lost, having grown up in grinding poverty without parental love, he understands [that] even that is not a terminal position, that it is possible to cope with enormous loss and come back stronger. Even when everyone is saying he can’t do what he wants to those children, that he’s causing them immense pain for no foreseeable gain, he keeps pushing.

Q: In the civil rights section, you point to the way the little guy always has to have a read on the big guy, who, in turn, tends to just ignore the powerless. The black leaders had to have an understanding of the white power structure, much as minority language groups have the advantage of bilingualism.

A: That is that strange inversion that helps flip the equation. When you are powerful, you invite scrutiny, whereas when you are not powerful, you have the virtue of anonymity. And the scrutiny brings not just knowledge to your opponents, but censure to you. What the British in Northern Ireland never understand in their dealings with the IRA is why they’re being held to a higher standard than the IRA. And they’re right, they are held to a higher standard, but it’s because they’re the powerful party. So the British get demonized and blamed for things that, if we were thinking of everyone in the world as roughly equal, are not in the same ballpark as [compared to] what the IRA is doing. The British encounter this kind of quagmire because everyone is looking at absolutely every little thing they do. And that seems unfair, sometimes, to Goliath, but it’s just a fact of being big: that you’re the one who is being looked at. It’s a sort of humbling note for the powerful, one of the natural ways in which they are kept in check. The spotlight that shines on them is a crucial way in which the world evens out the disadvantages.

Q: You’ve said in the past that people are “experience-rich but theory-poor,” meaning things happen to us but we don’t put them together. That seemed illustrated in the brief cognitive test you include, particularly in the way in which correct responses increase when the test is literally made harder to read. What do you think is going on?

A: What’s happening there is that the key component in doing well on any number of tests—not only pencil-and-paper cognitive tests, but any test we face as human beings—is our effort, right? We generally underestimate just how crucial focus and effort and motivation are, so if a task triggers those things because of some feature of the way it is presented to us, then we do better. So very often, that’s why difficulty can be desirable. Its effect of waking us up and alerting us to the necessity for hard work leaves us better off, not worse off.

Q: The test also indicates a major overdog problem, which I realized only after I got the first question wrong: complacency.

A: Yeah, I wish I had made more of that. It does test your intellectual complacency, your implicit understanding of how good you are, and then exposes your self-belief as being delusional.

Q: You, though, are not theory-poor. How did you come to link so many disparate-looking experiences into the “inverted U” profile?

A: The inverted U idea is just a curve that rises beneficially on the left when you apply a good idea, or add resources to what was a good idea. Then, after a while, it levels out, actually starts falling down the right side when more doesn’t mean better: upside-down U. This notion that the same process that is at low levels beneficial can at high levels become dangerous and pathological—and lead you down the other slope—is, on one hand, totally obvious. It’s what our mothers told us: Everything in moderation, right? It’s the story of alcohol, the story of everything. But in another sense, it’s not obvious: If small classes sizes are good, then tiny are better, right? The fun part comes in taking that completely obvious principle and saying, “Well, in how many different areas can I apply it? Does it work here? Does it work in education? Does it work . . .” Look through psychological literature and you’ll see all the times when people wondered, “Is this an instance when the U-shaped model applies?” Part of what’s enjoyable about writing books like this is stumbling across a cool explanation and then asking yourself, “Where can I use this? In what sort of situation would an idea like this be most useful?” The class-size argument has always really interested me. People keep quarrelling over the fact that, in some instances, [smaller] classes are good, and in others, not so good, and they keep saying that these two positions are in contradiction. The beauty of the U-shaped-curve idea is to say they’re not in contradiction, they’re part of the same phenomenon. It’s a lovely way to resolve an unresolved argument, and whenever I can do that, I’m happy.

Q: In education, too small a class is as ineffective as too large?

A: The crucial moment in that observation came when I sent out hundreds of emails to teachers—actually, to Canadian teachers—and read the responses. It was a simple email: “Is there such a thing as an optimal size for a class? If so, what’s that number?” The answers I got were just fascinating; I could have published an entire chapter of them. It was one of these sort of moments when you realize that an awful lot of seemingly complicated questions about education could be resolved simply by asking teachers, you know? It’s so dumb and obvious, but it’s like, “Hello, they’re the ones doing the teaching, dealing with the kids, who live this stuff. Just ask them.” And they’re incredibly articulate and intelligent on this, as they would be. Eighteen to 20 was their favoured size.

Q: As I read about the elite private school with the $50,000-a-year tuition and the class size limit of 12—which your teacher response indicates is too low—I thought of the $30,000-a-year school Amanda Ripley wrote about in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, where the parent committee cheerfully acknowledges the school is not so great at math. People are paying a fortune to set their kids up for failure?

A: They’re schools for parents. I quote someone to that effect, a researcher saying, “The function of these elite private schools is to increase the self-confidence and self-regard of the parents, not the kids.” Once you understand that, the appeal of Upper Canada College starts to diminish rapidly in one’s mind.

Q: More intriguing in educational terms, though, is the truly counterintuitive tale of what happens to the bottom third of an elite class, which register higher failure rates than students with much lower SAT scores.

A: The key to understanding that notion—that elite schools can have very, very negative effects—is the principle of relative deprivation. We judge ourselves, we reach conclusions about how good we are, not by comparing ourselves to the world, but by comparing ourselves to those people immediately around us, people in the same room as us. So the kids at Harvard University, who are among the smartest students in the world, but who are in the bottom third of the class, feel dumb. They feel exactly as dumb as the person in the bottom third of his class at East Tennessee State. That is really, really hard to wrap your mind around, but, once you grasp that fact that our judgments are relative, you understand that, if that’s the case, then an elite school’s not a good idea for someone who’s going to be at the bottom of his class. He has a high chance of dropping out—most kids who start science and math degrees drop out—and should go to a school where he can be at the top of his class. What you find is that your ability to complete that degree is only partially a function of your intelligence; it is as much a function of your place in your class. If you’re at the top of your class, you’ll have the confidence to finish. If you’re at the bottom, you’ll drop out. That’s a really subversive notion.

Q: And one that goes to the heart of David and Goliath’s arguments.You conclude that society as a whole needs the kind of mix that makes for a successful class, but some people suffer before they provide their part. Freireich, for instance: You wouldn’t wish his childhood on anyone, but it made him a fearless medical pioneer. How do we get that kind of contribution without that kind of pain?

A: That’s a question I raise and don’t resolve—because it’s unresolvable. A lot of this book is talking about the unexpected benefits of adversity, and so an immediate thought is, “Oh, are we back in the 19th century?” where, you know, people like Andrew Carnegie used to stand up and say being poor is good for you, and that’s not what I’m saying at all. I don’t want people to be poor so they can learn character virtues, but, given that the world is always inevitably going to be full of suffering, we should at least understand that some of that suffering has a purpose and a function and a happy ending, that’s all. We can’t look at someone who has faced some great drawback and assume that her contribution to society is over. But Freireich is a special example, this brilliant medical researcher with the unspeakable childhood. It is very plain to everyone who knows Freireich—and to Freireich himself—that his insights as a medical researcher squarely were made possible by the bleakness and the poverty of his childhood, and if he had a happy childhood, maybe we don’t cure leukemia. Is there some way for him to have learned those lessons without having had a brutal childhood? I don’t know, and nor does he.

Q: Yet even Freireich could go over the wrong side of the curve. You note how his colleague, Thom Frei, had to go to the other doctors—after a raging Freireich had demolished all collegiality in a hospital—and smooth things over.

A: Yeah, that was equally crucial to the outcome. That’s why I think Freireich’s story is the heart of the book, because it’s the most complex and troubling. He’s such an extraordinary character, the person I keep coming back to because I’m so fascinated by him.

Q: You have another moral quandary in the civil rights account. For all the justness of their cause, you have leaders putting children on the line—sending them up against firemen with pressure hoses and the police canine units—and manipulating the media with as much cynicism and more skill than the authorities.

A: True, true, but I think of that chapter as sort of joyful. It’s understanding the notion of the trickster hero, the idea that people at the bottom can lack resources and power and comforts and all kinds of material blessings, but they are forced to develop their wits. When you want to understand why Davids defeat Goliaths, you can’t just tell a story in terms of material advantages, you have to understand that there is going to be sleight of hand and trickery and clever turns and that games will be played. What Martin Luther King’s people, principally, this guy Wyatt Walker, were doing at the climactic showdown of the civil rights revolution in Birmingham, Ala., was playing a trick. Walker played a trick on all of us, that is to say, all of us who were not there, as well as the white establishment of Birmingham, when he used the children and the fire hoses, etc. I think there’s something kind of beautiful, beautiful and heroic about that. It’s a little discomforting to think of the lengths they went to deceive everyone about what they were up to and about what they were capable of, but then, you understand the stakes that they were playing for, right? I mean, you’re trying to end a couple hundred years of oppression. I think playing a few tricks to win the day is totally called for.

Q: In fact, even non-violent resisters rely on violence—stupid, counter-productive violence—from the authorities. When King was in Albany, Ga., he got nowhere because he was dealing with a clever and civilized police chief.

A: Exactly. A principal part of the strategy of insurgence, whether we’re talking about the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King or a war, is to provoke that kind of excessive behaviour from Goliath. Rebels want Goliath to show the world his thoughtless, brutal side, and when people understand they are members of a Goliath culture, and we realize how often we let our enemies lure us into behaving really badly, that undermines our cause faster than anything else. The whole time I was writing that bit, I was thinking about the use of drones by the Americans in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we’ve been baited into behaving really badly. And, yes, the Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett; of all the battles that King fought, that was obviously one of his biggest disappointments, because Pritchett wouldn’t go for it, wouldn’t take the bait. He was as much of a segregationist, and probably as much of a racist, as police chief Bull Connor in Birmingham, but King’s activities in Albany never amounted to anything, because the chief remained polite and civil and treated him like a human being and made sure his cops didn’t beat anyone up. So how on Earth do you play the card that King was trying to play, which was to make his opponents reveal themselves?

Q: Thank God, then, for Bull Connor?

A: In a certain sense, yes. It goes back, actually, to my discussion of legitimacy, in the book. People will comply with laws when the laws make sense, and if they don’t make sense, it is incumbent on those in power to fix them, not just ask for blind compliance because you’re the powerful party. The world doesn’t work that way.

Q: Is that what you were talking about in your recent article about doping in sports?

A: My gut instinct is to be opposed to doping, but I recognize that the arguments I use to oppose doping are pretty flimsy. Why is it okay to have a cadaver ligament in your arm but not to inject your own blood? I don’t know the answer to that. So the question is: Can we make a better argument, here? What we’re asking right now, in the case of doping in sports, is for blind compliance to a set of principles, even though, on certain levels, they make no sense.

Q: Will you take up any of these moral issues again, or do you see yourself more as someone who raises the question, then moves on?

A: Both, I suppose. I always think of my books as an ongoing conversation with myself and others and that people have without me. My hope about my books is that they will be dropped in the middle of these conversations and inspire new lines of inquiry. In no case have I reached a firm position, a “This is what, absolutely, I think.” I feel these are all things that need to be said and thought and raised [and] that I’ll be toying with for the rest of my life.

Q: Looking at the people, from both sides, in your book, where would you place yourself? Are you a David or Goliath?

A: I’m not a David at all. I had the benefit of a warm, supportive, utterly friction-free southwestern Ontario childhood. You can’t grow up in Canada in the ’70s and claim to have had some kind of, you know, emotionally fraught, disadvantageous childhood. In Elmira, you know, that’s just not happening. This book does not come from a personal place; it’s more my fascination with people who have lived lives so different from my own.

Book excerpt

What matters in determining the likelihood of getting a STEM—science, technology and math—degree is not just how smart you are. It’s how smart you feel relative to the other people in your classroom. Let’s reconstruct what Caroline Sacks—a straight-A high school student who dropped out of science at Brown University—should have been thinking when faced with the choice between Brown and the University of Maryland. By going to Brown, she would have benefited from the prestige of the university. She might have more interesting and wealthier peers. The connections she made at school and the brand value of Brown on her diploma might give her a leg up in the job market. These are all classic Big Pond advantages.

But she would be taking a risk. She would dramatically increase her chances of dropping out of science entirely. How large was that risk? According to research done by Mitchell Chang at the University of California, the likelihood of someone completing a STEM degree—all things being equal—rises by two percentage points for every 10-point decrease in the university’s average SAT score. The smarter your peers, the dumber you feel; the dumber you feel, the more likely you are to drop out of science. Since there is roughly a 150-point gap between the average SAT scores of students attending the University of Maryland and Brown, the “penalty” Sacks paid by choosing a great school over a good school is that she reduced her chances of graduating with a science degree by 30 per cent. Thirty per cent! At a time when students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find jobs, students with STEM degrees are almost assured of good careers. Jobs for people with science and engineering degrees are plentiful and highly paid. That’s a very large risk to take for the prestige of an Ivy League school.

Excerpt from David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants published by Little, Brown and reprinted by permission of the author.