Do Underdog Readers Stand a Chance Against Malcolm Gladwell’s Latest Book?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 7 2013 2:04 PM

Gladwell Is Goliath

Do puny readers stand a chance against his latest book?

(Continued from Page 1)

In Gladwell’s view, Coach Ranadivé was able to employ his amazing strategy because he came from outside the system. If he and his girls had had more talent and experience, they would have played in the same style as every other team, and had a losing season. But unfamiliarity with the game gave them “the audacity to play that way,” he says, and an underdog’s desperation inspired them to practice more intensely. “The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else,” and it seemed to work: The team lost only a “few games” in that whole magical season, and made it to the third round of the nationals. Gladwell summarized the story’s lesson on his blog in 2009, shortly after a version of the story appeared in the New Yorker: “Insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David’s only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it’s surprising that more underdogs don’t use them.”

But certain aspects of the story push back against its central thrust. First, Ranadivé is less of an outsider than he appears to be. Gladwell describes the coach as “a foreigner new to the game” who was helping the girls “in a sport he knew nothing about.” But Ranadivé is so ambitious, and so invested in the sport of basketball, that he brought expert help to Redwood City, including several former pro athletes. The Silicon Valley area from which the team was drawn includes lots of wealthy families, so the girls also had the benefit of high-quality training facilities and dedicated parents. (Redwood City has excelled at NJB for many years.) The “nationals” are not, in fact, a national tournament, as the league comprises mostly teams from California. And when I reached out to other coaches in the same division, they told me that the full-court press is a common strategy, no matter if the girls are underdogs or favorites. One guessed that 90 percent of the coaches make use of it, and some do so for the whole game, like Ranadivé did.

These are minor points, but they suggest the story’s been massaged to emphasize its impact. What about the bigger message, though? Gladwell claims that underdogs have the hidden strength of added effort, and presents the Redwood City girls as proof. But scientists have come to different conclusions. For one experiment (which I described in Slate in 2010), researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University tested undergrads on a thinking task: How many different uses could they come up with for a knife? When the kids were told their scores would be compared with those from students at a less prestigious school, they tried extra-hard and their scores improved. When they thought they were going up against a better school, however, they didn’t do as well. Being an underdog didn’t lead these kids to make a greater effort; it sapped their motivation. Other studies have come to similar results.

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Yet the fantasy that underdogs push themselves to great achievement persists among observers. At the University of South Florida, Joseph Vandello showed students footage from a closely contested basketball game, and told them that one team had been a heavy favorite to win. Then he asked his subjects to describe the players on each team according to their demonstrated effort and ability. They said the underdogs showed more “heart” and “hustle” than their opponents. Those judgments had little to do with what the players really did, however. It didn’t matter if they played aggressive defense or dived out of bounds for balls—Vandello could show the same video clip with the underdog and favorite labels flipped, and the students would attribute “heart” and “hustle” to the other team. Underdogs don’t try harder than anybody else, but we often think they do.

In part because of the qualities we (wrongly) attribute to them, people tend to overestimate David’s chances. A well-known inefficiency in gambling, first identified in 1949 and known as the “favorite-longshot bias,” derives from the fact that bettors often place too much faith in underdogs like Redwood City, and not enough in their opponents. And why not? We remember unexpected victories, and forget about the rest. David wins in films and books and epic poems, too. But Gladwell doesn’t think like the rest of us: Remember, he’s a giant, not a shepherd. “We think of underdog victories as improbable events … [but] they aren’t at all. Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time a David beats a Goliath?” he asks, as if any normal reader would share his disbelief. “Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” The premise makes no sense. It’s like he’s on a visit from a far-off place where everyone’s a Yankee fan and dyslexic poobahs power-lunch.

In Chapter 3, the book looks at what Gladwell calls the “Big Fish-Little Pond Effect.” Here he profiles a young woman called Caroline who planned to study bugs and fish at Brown University. Though she excelled in high school, getting an A in every class and a 5 on every AP exam, at Brown she struggled to keep up. Faced with stiffer competition than she’d ever seen before, Caroline washed out of majoring in science. If she’d gone to a lesser school, says Gladwell, where she would have been a stronger student than her peers, she might have ended up an ichthyologist. David and Goliath contrasts her fate with that of the Impressionists, who made the choice to boycott the Paris Salon art competition. If they’d put up their work against the great classical painters of the day—the Ivy Leaguers of 19th-century peinture—they might have languished in obscurity. They’d have gotten lost in a pond that was much too big. Instead they chose to mount their own, tiny exhibition where they could excel.

If I had a kid of college age, I might take the book’s advice, and suggest she skip the schools for which she’s only barely qualified. But thinking back to Chapter 1, the logic starts to blur. Shouldn’t Caroline have been an underdog at Brown, like the girls of Redwood City? If so, what happened to her hidden advantages—the ones that should have helped her to full-court-press her way to victory in class? And if she’d gone to Maryland instead, wouldn’t she have fallen victim to the state-school Davids who didn’t share her high school pedigree? What happens when the Big Fish-Little Pond Effect runs headlong into the Theory of Desirable Difficulty? It depends on the context, Gladwell says: “Not all difficulties have a silver lining, of course.” (Of course!)

It’s often been observed that Gladwell dresses up the obvious to make it seem remarkable. That’s a classic top-dog move, to blast away a straw man with the blunderbuss of common sense, then claim to be a marksman. Why change a winning strategy? David and Goliath came out Oct. 1; it’s already the fourth-best-selling book on Amazon. This drubbing of the competition may disappoint those of us—the four in five adults—who tend to pull for underdogs, but that’s the hidden lesson of the book: It doesn’t matter if we cheer or hiss. The giant marches on.

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