Cover Story

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell never studied psychology in college, but after coming across an issue of APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology--as a science writer for The Washington Post--he was hooked on the subject, he says.

"Randomly, this journal would come in the mail every month, and I got kind of intrigued by it," recalls Gladwell. After nearly 10 years at the Post, Gladwell joined the staff of The New Yorker, and since then has written two books and dozens of popular press articles translating psychological research for the public.

In "The Tipping Point" (Little, Brown, 2000), Gladwell examines how major changes in our society become epidemics. He followed it up five years later with "Blink" (Little, Brown, 2005), which looks at intuition and how it affects decision-making in such areas as military strategy and professional food tasting. Both books can be found on many company and business school required reading lists, and their success persuaded Time magazine to name him one of its 100 most influential people in 2005.

His writing also appeals broadly to psychologists, says APA President Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, who invited Gladwell to serve as the keynote speaker for the opening session of APA's 2008 Annual Convention in Boston.

"I can think of no other person whose work combines scholarship, artistry and experience with such skill," says Kazdin.

The Monitor spoke with Gladwell about his forthcoming book on the culture of success, due out in November, and what keeps bringing him back to psychology.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Sometimes I'm inspired just from my reading in psychology. I see that people are interested in issues and then I take that idea and look for real world stories to illustrate it. When I was writing "Blink," I wanted to talk about research by Paul Ekman, PhD, on [the universal ability to read and interpret] facial expressions and thought of using the [Amadou] Diallo case as an example. [New York City Police Department officers shot Diallo in 1999 after they mistook his reach for a shiny dark object in his pocket--is wallet--as a gun].

Sometimes, it's the other way around: I have an example or something interests me and I look for insight in psychology to help me illustrate the lessons of that. I did a profile recently of the "Dog Whisperer"--Cesar Millan--for The New Yorker, and, in searching for a way to understand his success with animals, I stumbled across a movement theory used [by dance therapist Suzi Tortora, EdD] to treat autistic children.

I spend a lot of time browsing at New York University library.

Is there a particular area of psychology you're most interested in?

Unlike an academic psychologist who has a set number of fields that he or she is interested in, I have the freedom to roam very widely, so my interests change over time. There are names that keep popping up again and again, however. Nothing Richard Nisbett has ever written have I disagreed with. I am a Nisbettiat, if that's a word. In the new book that I'm writing, I have a whole thing from a book that Nisbett and Dov Cohen wrote called "The Culture of Honor" (Westview Press, 1996). For "Blink" I was really interested in the stuff that Mahzarin Banaji and John Bargh were doing with implicit bias.

What's the strangest or funniest thing you've come across in your work?

There's so many! The John Bargh research [on priming, which showed that just reading certain words leads to an unconscious change in behavior] that I write about in "Blink" I find pretty unbelievable. That's still some of the most amazing stuff I've run across because of the size of the effects and this idea about how much buried unconscious influence there is on our behavior. The magnitude of it was so much larger that I would have imagined. My fascination with psychology is this: It's not that what [psychologists] tell us is new necessarily; it's the size of the effect that's new. Everyone knows that you can be affected in some kind of unconscious way by various biases or stimuli. What we don't realize is how big a deal that is.

Psychology to me is most fascinating when it says: This thing you thought was trivial is actually really important and critical. That is what always brings me back to psychology because it's this reminder that even the most academic and seemingly esoteric research can very often have a very consequential implication. Psychology is not at the margins of experience; it's dealing with stuff at the very center of human experience.

What's an area of psychology in which you'd like to see more research?

I would love to understand more completely ... the link between environmental inputs and cognitive abilities. I feel like we're getting closer, but there's still all kinds of unanswered questions about that issue, and that's why it continues to be so controversial in many ways. That's one thing I hope we keep plugging away at--questions such as, "How do you reverse the process of environmental disadvantage?"

Why did you agree to speak to psychologists at this year's APA convention?

I said yes because it's a dream come true. These are the people who my livelihood exists on. I always describe myself as a parasite of academic psychology, and this is a chance for the parasite on the back of the elephant to do something for the elephant, finally. I'm absolutely delighted to come.

What do you plan to talk about?

I'll probably talk about something connected with my new book, which is all about cultures of success and understanding the kind of environments that breed achievement. I retell people's success stories, but instead of focusing on individual traits, I focus on questions about where people are from--their generation, their family, their ethnicity, their hometown--because I'm interested in the collective contribution to success, not the individual contribution to success. The book has a lot of sociology in it, but the only way not to embarrass yourself if you're a layman in front of a group of psychologists is not to talk about psychology. So I'll probably talk about sociology and see if I can get away with it.