Malcolm Gladwell’s fundamental attribution error – On external factors of academic/professional success.

In a recent talk at google, Malcolm Gladwell severely over-interprets data about post-academic achievement, proposing palpably unjustified conclusions.

The data and trend Gladwell picked up on is interesting. In summary: after leaving university, very capable students who were in the middle of their class in top world universities had worse professional outcomes than less capable students who were first in their class in non-top universities. In other words: there is some disadvantage in being the less good among the best possible group, when compared to being the best in a mediocre group.

Gladwell proceeds to propose the reason is that top-of-class students become more motivated and self confident even when the class is overall bad, while middle-of-class students lose motivation and self confidence. On this account, the reason for professional outcome disparity is intrinsic to the student. It’s motivation and self confidence resulting in more hard work. Gladwell goes so far as to suggest that it would be irrational to hire based on any absolute ranking, but instead hiring should be based on relative rankings. After all, the top-in-class will be more motivated and perform better.

Out of Gladwell’s account are factors extrinsinc to the students. In doing so he commits a form of the fundamental attribution error: a well-known bias that leads observers to justify people’s behaviour based on their attitudes and dispositions as opposed to circumstances and external factors. Another plausible justification for the disparities of outcomes is that top-of-class students (of non-top Univs), when compared to middle-of-class students (of top Univs) are: given more local awards, honours, distinctions;  given more access to preferential treatment by those who can open doors for them (professors, friends);  given more opportunities to express themselves and showcase their work to the outside; written stronger more supportive recommendation letters; perceived by the outside as more capable because of their local-rank; etc. All of these are perfectly plausible explanations for the data Gladwell shows. (Indeed, more plausible in my opinion.) And they have very different consequences if true.

Just imagine an example: A top-of-class student in “Bad University” will get the best recommendation letter that his/her professor wrote that year, while a middle-of-class student at Harvard will get nothing much from any of his/her professors. These are extrinsic reasons, and they say nothing about the student’s actual capacity, while they will seriously affect his/her career. In other words, Gladwell has no reason to exclude the simple possibility that  a middle-of-class student at “Top University” if given the same opportunities and support  would do better than a top-of-class at “Bad University”.

To conclude with a more general observation: structural and institutional factors are often disregarded as explanatory reasons for professional success (or personal success for that matter). Recognizing this leads to very different conclusions, and it puts a very different weight on us to change – as opposed to the “motivation” of students or workers. If we are all wasting the talent of very capable people just because they don’t stand out in their very capable group, then we need to find ways of paying less attention to rankings, and more attention to the actual capacity of each individual.


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