Malcolm Gladwell’s ACR 2013 Talk: Summary, Science and Responses


Malcolm Gladwell just gave a talk at the Association for Consumer Research. What did he talk about? How did it go? What scientific research did he cover? What are related research he did not cover? How did he handle questions and a somewhat “difficult” audience of behavioral scientists?

We will post a more detailed reaction soon that will feature editorials. But for those itching to know what he talked about and also interested in citation links related to what he said, here’s your summary fix.

What was his “hypothesis”?

Gladwell talked about topics not in his new book. He described the ideas as ‘provisional’ but they seemed highly polished. He mainly talked about how minorities (women, races) are kept out of the majority and his main hypotheses was that people excluded minorities by a) accepting some of them and/or b) being hyper critical of others. His illustrative hypothesis was that if and when Hillary Clinton is elected President she will be the only woman president for a long time.

What were the specifics of the “hypothesis”?

Gladwell argued that people feel licensed to be discriminatory against minorities because they tend to accept a few of them (e.g. have one female head of state, have one woman artist in a museum) and or do a few things for them (charity). He also argued they feel like they can be hyper critical of minorities.To help explain this point he defined two different types of minority tokens: the trouble token and the ideal token.

The trouble token he defined as the person that represents the minority and is thoroughly thrashed by the majority culture. His main example for this was former Australian head of state Julia Gillard who Gladwell says was uniquely ridiculed by the public in part because of her gender.

The ideal token he defined as the person that is accepted by the majority and allows the majority to feel “not sexists” or “not racist.” His main narrative example for this was artist Elizabeth Thompson who broke into the male dominated English art scene in the 1870s. However, her success did not lead to a drastic change in the gendered art community. There was also some discussion about Jews and how Nazis felt comfortable with prejudice and the Final Solution because they had previously been nice to small groups or individuals. In discussing the ideal token he cited “moral licensing” work about how favoring Obama licenses people to have anti-black attitudes.

How did he do?

ImagePretty fantastic actually. Rhiannon MacDonnell said it best on Twitter: “Really interesting and candid talk by Gladwell at ACR 2013. Great jock tackling a tough crowd with humility and humor.”

Gladwell did two things right: 1) He told great thought provoking stories and 2) he was upfront that he was proposing absolute “laws.” He cleverly joke about how his aims are different from the scientific community.

The ACR Co-Chairs Simona Botti  and Aparna Labroo should be proud to have brought such great entertainment with a side of thought provoking insights to ACR with Gladwell. In their introduction of the Gladwell session, it was obvious how excited the two were to have Gladwell, and by the end of the session that excitement was shared by arguably most of the audience.

But there was one thing…

Gladwell’s talk was extremely depressing.  He identified a problem and offered no solution. His talk ended with, “And I’m not certain we’ll ever have another Black President.”

Gladwell’s entire message was that people in the majority can oppress minorities and still feel good about themselves. His whole talk was about why and how this happened but the takeaway was there really is no hope. There was sliver of hope suggesting that if some how a significant portion of the minority can force their way in, things will get better. However, that was the only ray of sunshine.

Now, if you are in the successful class (like in many ways to audience at Palmer Hilton hotel conference featuring Malcolm Gladwell are), then his points seem insightful. But if you are in the minority or lower class then the results are just depressing.

How did he manage the whole criticism of the Gladwell style?


Arguably quite well. He was humble. Saying his ideas in the talk were “provisional” and “I am just playing.” He joked about differences between his writing and scientific writing saying, “I am not going to submit that [his hypothesis on culture] to JPSP [The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology].”

He also talked about how though all the behavioral scientists in the room think it is obvious that things like culture affect outcomes, this is not the case for the general public always. He states that his books were to get people thinking about ideas that our field just knows to be true

Yale Professor Zoe Chance asked Gladwell a pointed question about balancing accuracy with storytelling. His response seemed very similar to a recent quote he gave in a Guardian piece, “If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them” and also expressed in an extended conversation with Duke Professor Dan Ariely.

Gladwell stated that he wants to inspire people and make them feel joyous about science. He sees himself (as he literally is) the child of an academic and pursues similar but not the exact same goals. From the buzz around ACR it seems Gladwell won over a lot of the Gladwell skeptics. He did this by clarifying that he isn’t trying to replace scientists nor does he want to propose absolute laws – he articulated perfectly and humbly that his goals are different.

Why the talk was interesting & uncomfortable

Gladwell articulated in his iconic style a question that has been on the minds of many moral psychologists: how can we feel good about ourselves when we do so little to actually help those in need?

For instance all of the conference members with enjoy a private party at the House of Blues in Chicago this evening and return late into the night to Palmer Hilton for a nice sleep and flight back—all compensated by their universities. All of us here at ACR arguably all engage in some degree of hypocrisy, claiming to care so much for the poor, the obese, and the irrational consumer, but we then go buy a $5 Starbucks with university funds.

Understanding this general psychological phenomenon and trying to grasp at what truly is the correct moral way to live in the world is something that came (intentionally or not) out of Gladwells speech – it’s a wonderful spark for empirical and philosophical work.

What science should Malcolm Gladwell read?

ImageIt was difficult to tell how much psychology Gladwell has read. He referenced work on moral licensing, but even how familiar he was with that topic was ambiguous. This did not stop him from making insightful and great points that he openly described as speculative.

However, if he does want to move more from speculation to more of a firm hypotheses for a future articles or a book, we have a few suggestions of what he should read more of. If you have any suggestions let us know on Twitter (@Indecision_Blog) or just leave a comment on this post. We’ll be updating this post with the ideas you share us here and also with more specific articles in the future to stimulate discussion amongst ourselves and maybe even to pass along to Gladwell. In sum, it is the belief of at least this author that Gladwell put together some fascinating hypotheses that may be worth exploring or relating to our work.

Moral licensing

Licensing is a more contentious topic than it sometimes seems. We suggest he keeps his eyes out for looming meta-analyses that should come out soon and check out work on when licensing does not occur such as in this study by Ayelet Gneezy and colleagues.

Moral self

His hypotheses seemed very similar to work by Albert Bandura on moral disengagement and Nina Mazar on the self-concept maintenance model. Both of these ideas were the center of Dan Ariely’s bestselling new book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, so it was somewhat odd than none of these researchers in our field got a nod and instead only Effron and Monin got a tip.

Categorization theory

In discussing how people assign people to categories and code people as say “in-group” or “out-group” or how whites might decide where to code a black person as “black” or not has been extensively looked at the literature. This seemed fundamental to his discussion of the ideal token, but he did not discuss any of this work. Was this because of time or his lack of knowledge of it? Even just a short browsing on Psych Wikipedia for this topic might help.

Our Question! His Answer: Storytelling

Indecision Blog had the honor of asking Gladwell the first question in the Q&A (big thanks to co-chairs of ACR for this honor): we asked how can academia influence business persons and policy makers in the way Gladwell has.

His answer was simply that we need to tell stories. He made clear that the story has to be in the communication with businesses and policy makers. Gladwell described his answer as “obvious”, but we still think it’s not so obvious in our field all the time. (Full coverage as well as the full transcription of Gladwell’s answer to this question sometime soon.)

However, we will note that Gladwell started his ACR talk with a very long story before it became apparent what his hypotheses was and long before his talk got “scientifically interesting.” You could feel the tension in the room when Gladwell was just storytelling and before he delivered on the story in a way that seemed to satisfy the audience. We as researchers would probably have skipped the extensive opening narratives when communicating our ideas, but Gladwell says this is necessary. At the end when all the bread crumbs he laid out came together, it was hard to argue that his extensive storytelling did not help make his simple hypotheses seem more real and inspire his audience to actually do something about it.


One thought on “Malcolm Gladwell’s ACR 2013 Talk: Summary, Science and Responses

  1. Pingback: Why Science Must Be Fun | People Science Blog

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