Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the inverted u curve

I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath last night.  I was hoping, given the title, that I would be able to extrapolate lessons for New Brunswick (David) as it competes with larger jurisdictions (Goliath).  I didn’t glean much in terms of lessons for good old New Brunswick.

Like his other books, Gladwell sets out to change our minds regarding long held beliefs about things.  If you read Outliers, Blink, etc. you will know what I mean.

The first part of the book makes the point that weaknesses can actually be strengths and vice versa.  He uses dyslexia as an example where some very successful people have used that learning disability to their advantage.

The rest of the book is more about the inverted U curve (you might call this the “too much of a good thing…..” curve).   He makes the case that initially more is better but then the marginal utility diminishes and then goes negative.   His examples are money, school class sizes, punishment (specifically the three strikes rule in California), etc.   Initially, reducing class size generates benefits for the students but at a point it actually makes things worse.

Gladwell completely tears the traditional story of David and Goliath to shreds.  In his telling, Goliath was a mostly blind buffoon who never stood a chance.

As with his previous works, this is more Freakonomics than the Journal of Behavioral Economics but that is why he sells millions while academic articles sell hundreds.

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the inverted u curve

  1. I assume this is the guy that was on CBC’s ‘The Current’ the other day. I don’t always agree with you but this is a second good reason not to bother with the guy’s book. For the class size thing, during the interview he said he “spoke to some teachers” in order to come to the conclusion that class sizes can be too small, and that in small sizes disruptive people can ‘take over’. Which sounds pretty far from ‘objective’ evidence to me. I know a lot of teachers, and there are some BAD teachers out there whose conclusions I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. And as far as ‘disruptive’, there is stuff that goes on in classrooms that you can’t even PRINT here. I burst out laughing when he said “its harder to have good discussions”. Has he BEEN to school?? I seriously seriously doubt that education has changed THAT much that it consists of ‘discussions’, heck even in university education barely consisted of that.

    And to made the CBC look even worse since the part I heard didn’t even have a single challenge to any of his statements. CBC really has become a “you write it and we’ll run it” media station.

    His comments about dyslexia were just strange. Sure its true that SOME people have overcome adversity to succeed, thats a LONG way from saying that its BECAUSE of their adversity. The example he used was some ‘famous guy’ in Hollywood who felt with all his millions he’d ‘deprived’ his children of his ‘adversity’. THAT is going to make decent public policy?? He did fortunately backtrack a little and claim the obvious, but I heard on an interview that Ozzy Osbourne was dyslexic, so gee, lets tell all the kids to join rock bands-THAT makes sense.

    But simple marketing explains WHY his books may sell, how many of those authors of the Journal of Behavioural Economics actually bother publishing their works or marketing them? I did a quick check, the first article from the journal was on nursing turnover in pediatrics, the conclusion was that having children, working 12 hour shifts, and pay scales had ‘direct and indirect effects’ on turnover. Wow, who would have thunk it? Anybody want to read a book about it?

  2. I just can’t resist, this is the second article I found:

    The behavior of respondents in contingent valuation: Evidence on starting bids


    Data from a contingent valuation survey of New Jersey beaches provides a test of starting point bias. Subsamples were delineated corresponding to levels of respondent understanding of the commodity being valued. A means- difference test showed statistically significant starting point bias for each subsample of respondents. A bid function is used to show that starting point bias is present and it increases as the level of information (understanding) decreases. Starting point bias was found even though respondents were actually using and paying for the commodity in question and the starting bids were in the neighborhood of the entry fee.

    It took me about four reads just to understand the sentences, although for the life of me I have no idea what the heck people on New Jersey beaches are ‘bidding’ on.

    But it turns out the obvious is true-the less you understand something, the more biased you’ll be about it. But what REALLY struck me is that just that ARTICLE will cost you $31.50, about double what anybody would pay for a book (and 31 more than I’d ever pay!)

    So if you want to know why this guy sells more books, just look at the price tag!

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