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Even if you’re not one of the millions who’ve cracked his books, read his articles, tuned into his podcast, or listened to his talks, you’re still probably aware of Malcolm Gladwell as someone who’s carved out a distinctive cultural niche as a kind of entrepreneur of challenging perspectives and intellectual adventure stories. In recent years, he’s evolved from being just a wildly successful author to becoming a seemingly nonstop, multiplatform purveyor of striking, counterintuitive ideas. His work pivots on a kind of conjury, a flair for mesmerizing audiences into rediscovering the familiar and thinking about it in surprising, often fascinating new ways.
There’ve been the five bestsellers: the Big Idea books The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath; along with What the Dog Saw, a selection of essays pulled from his more than 20 years of writing for The New Yorker. And now we have three seasons of him looking anew at the past in his entertaining podcast, Revisionist History, which debuted at number one on iTunes. Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Gladwell has tallied more than 14 million views for his TED talks. Come March, he’ll be a keynoter at the 2019 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.
In the following interview, he describes his first encounters with psychotherapeutic topics, the impact of his work on the psychology community, and his upcoming book on encounters between strangers that go awry.
Psychotherapy Networker: You’ve written extensively about psychology but very little about psychotherapy or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. Is there some reason that those subjects haven’t attracted your attention?
Malcolm Gladwell: The truth is that early on in my career as a writer, I made the mistake of reading Janet Malcolm’s book on psychoanalysis, The Impossible Profession, which I regard as a masterpiece, same as almost all her books. After reading it, I knew I could never ever write as intelligently about therapy as she did. Imagine you were a budding tennis player and happened to play a junior tournament against a young Roger Federer: you would’ve probably quit tennis. So after reading Janet Malcolm on psychoanalysis, it was the same thing. I said to myself, I’ll probably have to focus elsewhere.
But I’m not uninterested in the topic. In fact, I have a chapter in my new book about suicide, and that’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to speaking at the Networker Symposium. I think it will be a great chance to test out some of my ideas on the subject with a group of mental health professionals.
PN: How do you assess the impact that your work has had on the psychology community?
Gladwell: That’s an almost impossible question to answer. I’d like to think that I’ve given some good ideas—and maybe sometimes some bad ones—a little more visibility. But I think the most important thing I’ve done is to point people, especially young people, in the direction of psychology. When an academic says, “I used your book in my Introduction to Psychology class,” that, to me, is the highest possible praise. I don’t write books that should be studied by fourth-year psychology students: they might already know more than I do at that point.
Really, my target audience is that bright, curious, first-year student who’s wondering what to study. And my books essentially argue that you could do a lot worse than studying psychology. When someone tells me, “Reading your books is why I majored in psychology,” I consider that my sweet spot. I’m an advertisement for the field.
PN: What can you say about the book you’re working on now?
Gladwell: I’m interested in encounters between strangers that go awry. A classic example is the incidents at police stops we’ve all been hearing about over the past several years. Both the police officer and the person who’s been stopped have to make judgments about each other in a very limited span of time based on very limited information. And the possibility for a mistake is very high. I want to try to understand why those mistakes happen and what we can we do to avoid them.
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Now if you know the cop and he knows you, the probability of things going awry are greatly reduced. But a lot of senseless violence is triggered by the fact that there’s no context in which to place the strangers we’re encountering. Or take the example of two kids who meet at a party, and something happens at the end of the night, and you wind up with a sexual assault case. I’m trying to understand situations in which we’re required to make highly consequential decisions about a stranger in a short period of time.
PN: How do you choose your themes and put together the puzzle pieces of your books? For example, what got you interested in encounters between strangers?
Gladwell: Actually, the thing that got me going was my fascination with the Bernie Madoff case. I thought that was one of the most interesting public stories of my lifetime. Even though it seemed to be very different from what happens at police stops, when you think about it, it’s a similar kind of story. So many people entrusted their money to a man who was unknown to them. They were under an illusion that they knew him, but the illusion was false. I found the way he managed to obscure his true self from so many people he dealt with utterly fascinating.
I also got interested in the kind of people who managed to sniff him out. Many people thought there was something off about him, then just backed away. I think that’s actually where I started. I got more and more interested in why it’s so difficult for people to understand when they’re being deceived. In other words, why are we often so gullible? There’s a brilliant psychologist named Tim Levine who’s come up with what he calls the Truth-Default Theory. He says that we’re by nature gullible and predisposed to trust people explicitly because it’s an evolutionary adaptation. It’s what enables us to build civil society and functional groups. It’s also why overturning that default trust is really hard. We’re not built to spot liars.
PN: Which of your books would you consider most relevant to therapists?
Gladwell: I know this sounds lame, but I’d say all of them, at least in the sense that a therapist is someone who’s curious about other people. That’s also true of journalists like me, but the difference is that therapists use that sense of curiosity to heal the people who come to them. Actually, it may be that the book I’m working on will wind up being of particular interest to therapists because it focuses on a problem they encounter every day: someone sits down in your office and—having no idea who they are—you have to make a meaningful assessment of them based on little snippets of information over a limited period of time. That’s really what my new book is about. In fact, the book is going to be called Talking to Strangers. That might not be a bad description of a therapist’s job.
This blog is excerpted from, "An Interview with Malcolm Gladwell." The full version is available in the November/December 2018 issue, A New Generation of Clients: Is Therapy Keeping Pace?
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